“Welcome back to the 63rd NJCAA Alpine Bank National Junior College Baseball World Series in beautiful Grand Junction, Colorado.”

That was the message fans heard before Game 1 of JUCO in May, when more than 6,000 of them returned to Suplizio Field after a year away. The Monday night fireworks game was packed, with more than 10,000 in attendance, bigger than even some of the recent pre-pandemic Memorial Day gatherings.

JUCO was the first major event that was open to full attendance after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered basically everything for months. Face covering were optional, hand sanitizer stations were placed throughout the stadium, with social distancing attempted at concession stands and vendors.

The biggest change was canceling the festivities that come along with the series — out of an abundance of caution, the tournament banquet, kids baseball clinic and Challenger baseball game were scrubbed, as was the STRiVE picnic.

Keeping players as isolated as possible from the public was the intent, but it was left to each team to follow the guidelines of their school and the Mesa County Public Health Department. Teams waiting to play or watching other games were seated in the outfield bleachers, with fans staying in the main grandstands.

There was still plenty of interaction, though, with kids clamoring for autographs, caps and other memorabilia, and players granting selfie requests.

It all worked — there wasn’t an outbreak traced back to JUCO, and the tournament was a weeklong celebration of things slowly getting back to normal, albeit a new normal.

The NJCAA did away with the rotating pairings, instead seeding the 10 qualifying teams. As fate would have it, the top two seeds were upset in the first round.

Crowder (Missouri) College was the No. 1 seed, but lost to No. 10 Indian Hills Community College 10-3, but came all the way back through the losers’ bracket to reach the semifinals, then being eliminated by McLennan (Texas), Community College the No. 4 seed. Second-seeded Walters State was upset in the first round by No. 9 Shelton State, then won one elimination game before falling to Crowder.

San Jacinto College-North (Texas), seeded third, lost its fourth game to McLennan, then was eliminated the next night by Central Arizona, which was trying to win back-to-back titles, with a one-year hiatus, of course.

McLennan (Texas) claimed its first title since 1983, and won it on the birthday of that team’s coach, Rick Butler. The Highlanders, who were 10-11 at one point in the season, finished the 2021 season on a 23-game winning streak.

Logan Henderson struck out 17 batters in the title game and was selected the tournament’s outstanding pitcher and most valuable player.

“Oh, my goodness, how much fun was that?” McLennan coach Mitch Thompson said after the Highlanders defeated Central Arizona 7-2. “What a ride.”

Plans are to have the banquet, clinic and other festivities return in 2022, along with another stadium renovation. Both Suplizio Field and Stocker Stadium are getting upgrades, with the main grandstands at the baseball field being replaced, including 1,000 individual stadium seats in the area behind home plate. The renovation will connect the main grandstands to the first-base seats instead of leaving the gap between the stands and walkway onto the field.

At Stocker, the aging west stands have been removed and will be replaced, along with improved amenities and a safer entry from the corner of 12th Street and North Avenue. A new locker room for Colorado Mesa’s football team is being built near the Lincoln Park Barn beyond the south end zone.