Good luck can come from anywhere
Dave Burroughs still remembers every single day of the 1997 Alpine Bank Junior College World Series like it was yesterday.
The longtime coach of the Cowley College (Kansas) baseball team helped guide the Tigers to the national tournament for the first time that year and, like all coaches and players who come to Grand Junction, had dreams of hoisting a national championship trophy. It wasn’t until halfway through the tournament he realized what the driving force his team would use on its way to a national championship would be.
It was a pheasant.
“It was the darndest thing looking back at it,” Burroughs recalled with a laugh. “That was something that was truly unique to that ‘97 team, and ... it was something that really caught on with that group of guys and, in the end, the entire city of Grand Junction.”
The pheasant was the motivational drive for the Tigers that year, with a player from the busload of ball players who were also avid hunters spotting a pheasant on the way from the team’s Horizon Drive hotel to Suplizio Field. In the lone tournament game the Tigers lost, the pheasant was nowhere to be found.
But it was easily spotted during all of the Tigers’ wins. The story of the pheasant is one of many superstitious motivational tools teams have latched onto en route to winning a national title, including Cowley’s 1997 championship.
Central Arizona College held tightly to a superstition when it won the title in 2002. The Vaqueros had a fan named Cathy Crockett who used a set of rocks to keep score during a game when the home-field scoreboard went out and in some cases, when the sun was shining too bright making the scoreboard numbers unreadable.
So it only made sense for her to pack up the rocks and bring them with her to Grand Junction. Central Arizona was rock solid in the tournament and came away with its second national championship in school history. And by the time the Vaqueros hoisted the NJCAA championship trophy, Crockett was glad she used rocks and not something else.
“We once tried using sunflower seeds, but they just blew away,” she said at the time.
There was also the pond turtle Navarro College (Texas) adopted in 2011. The reptile, anointed Rally T. Turtle, was the Bulldogs’ pet during the tail end of Navarro’s season, which ended with a JUCO championship. Former coach Woah Dill even kissed Rally after a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 10th inning gave Navarro the championship against Central Arizona.
Cowley County’s pheasant, however, was one of the more memorable good-luck charms JUCO has seen. Burroughs remembers it well.
The pheasant was spotted in the area where the Safeway on Horizon Drive is now located. At that time, it was simply an area of trees, grass and other growth that make for a pleasant pheasant habitat. After the Tigers lost 11-6 to Indian Hills (Illinois), players disclosed that the good-luck pheasant was not spotted before the game.
The next day, members of the team spotted the pheasant again as the team made its way to the stadium to play Wallace State (Alabama). The Tigers won the game 12-8. The team again saw the pheasant on its way to winning another elimination game the next day and, as it traveled to play in the tournament semifinal against Scottsdale (Arizona), the scene on the bus that Burroughs described was timeless.
“You could look at the right side of the bus, and there were 25 noses glued to the windows with everyone looking for the pheasant,” he said.
Before the bus moved away from the area, a player yelled, “There it is!”
The bus erupted with cheers, and Cowley went on to reach the title game. And it got better right before the Tigers’ eventual title-game win against Seminole State (Oklahoma).
Some fans had learned about the good-luck pheasant, so they bought a replica pheasant that sat on Cowley’s dugout roof, and that decoy remains in Burroughs’ office.
When the Tigers rushed the field after winning the 1997 title game, fans at the game celebrated by tossing feathers at the players.
“For some reason, that pheasant made our guys play like a bunch of 20-year veterans,” the coach said. “Boy, baseball players sure can be a superstitious bunch.”