Banquet sets stage for JUCO players

Cisco (Texas) College’s Robert Baker signs a ball for 6-year-old Layton Hansen on Friday night at the JUCO banquet as Dylan Roahrig waits his turn.

As they wandered about Two Rivers Convention Center, dozens of baseball players who will today start playing for a national championship were just a little bit in awe.

A group gathered Friday evening in front of the displays from the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series that fill one wall of the convention center.

“Wow, Willie Mays was here!” one said as they scanned the list of banquet speakers.

They high-fived and fist-bumped youngsters who, shyly at first, asked for autographs on pristine white baseballs.

“We’re having a blast,” Cisco (Texas) College’s Eric Tate said.

His teammates nodded in unison, happy to relax a little bit before their JUCO debut, at 7:30 tonight against Jefferson (Mo.) College. They know today will be full of jitters and anticipation, and when they step onto Suplizio Field, more people than live in Cisco (2010 population of 3,899) will be in the stands.

“It should be a great time,” Tate said. “We just have to focus on the small things for baseball. It’s the same field. It’s 90 feet to first base. Focus on your job and what you have to do to help the team, and I think everyone’s going to do that.”

One of the Wranglers’ opponents, Sage Boehner of Jefferson, knows the wide-eyed feeling the first-year players have. He was like that last year when the Vikings made their first trip.

“Last year we got out here the Friday before and got off the bus and came to this (banquet) and played the next morning,” he said. “We went two and out, and it wasn’t what we were expecting. We’re a lot more relaxed this year, more comfortable. We’re ready to come out and play.”

Three new members of the NJCAA Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame were inducted. All three men had at least one thing in common — all have experienced the JUCO World Series as a coach.

“I got here my last year, and it was quite an experience for me, my players and my family, and I appreciate Grand Junction and everything they do here,” said Scott Sims of South Georgia, who retired after last season.

Sims challenged the teams to carry a little bit of JUCO back home.

“Folks, players and coaches, I said something earlier about doing it the right way. I hope we did things the right way,” Sims said. “If you would, take what you experience here, take it back to your community and do something to make a difference.”

Lon Joyce was the first coach from South Carolina to bring a team to the JUCO World Series — six more Spartanburg Methodist teams have followed. From the time he was hired as a 28-year-old, Joyce figured out ways to improve his program.

“We had an old field. Every line drive would go through the fence in the outfield, it seemed, and every time we had a hard rain, there was a one-foot-wide (puddle) at first base.

“We had 2 1/2 scholarships, but if you worked those scholarships correctly, work in some grant money and some academic money ... and you had to make some good friendships with financial aid officers.”

Cam Walker is still coaching at Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College, where he played junior college baseball.

Despite offers to coach in the minor leagues, he stayed at the junior college level, because, he said, “as much as I dreamed about the opportunity to groom professional players, at Indian Hills, I was grooming professionals off the field.

“Not all of them will play in front of millions, but all of them will make it to the major leagues in life.”

With school out, all the players have to worry about this week is playing baseball.

Not a bad way to wrap up a season, Iowa Western Community College freshman Grant Kay said.

“We’re just worrying about playing baseball, and that’s it. That’s all we have to do,” he said.

The Reivers have the first game of the tournament, at 9 a.m. against San Jacinto (Texas) College-North. That meant an early curfew Friday and an even earlier wake-up call today.

“We’re used to it. That’s what we’ve done all year,” Kay said. “I’d much rather be playing baseball on a field like this than getting up and lifting weights in the morning.”


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