MCKENZIE LANGE/The Daily Sentinel

The newest inductees into the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series Home Run Alley Heroes, from left, Christopher Tomlinson, Kevin McChesney representing KREX, Pete Jouflas and 8-year-old Andrew Thomas, in front, are recognized before the Friday’s game at Suplizio Field.

The players, coaches and fans weren’t the only people who missed the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The longtime volunteers and people who help make JUCO one of Grand Junction’s signature events also missed the tournament.

“I was working that Saturday, the start of the tournament (last year),” said Daily Sentinel photographer Christopher Tomlinson, who is capturing images of the tournament for the 36th year this week. “For some reason I drove out to the ballpark and looked into the gates. I wasn’t the only one. There were others, too.”

Tomlinson was one of the three people and a local television station to be honored during a pregame ceremony Friday night at Suplizio Field as a Home Run Alley Hero. Tomlinson is joined by JUCO Committee member Pete Jouflas, local media broadcast partner KREX and 8-year-old multicultural ambassador/crayon fundraiser/entrepreneur Andrew Thomas.

For the Home Run Alley Heroes, the JUCO World Series is something they are excited to participate in just as much as the players, coaches, and fans.

Thomas walked out to the field in awe when his name was called to be recognized and received an ovation. He was greeted by the other honorees and shook their hands after the other honorees put their hand out to him.

“This is cool!” Thomas said while soaking in the atmosphere with thousands of fans. “This is super cool!”

JUCO honors people from the Grand Valley for their part in promoting baseball in the Grand Junction area, those who have made a significant contribution toward making the JUCO World Series a premier sporting event or contributed to making the Grand Junction community a better place to live. Each recipient is remembered with a personalized tribute in the shape of a baseball, which is mounted along the bleachers in left field. Home Run Alley Heroes recognition began in 2005.

Thomas is the youngest Home Run Alley Hero member. The 8-year-old made a difference not only in the community, but has become known across the country for raising more than $25,000 to buy Crayola multicultural crayons and markers for every elementary school student in the Grand Valley.

Thomas came up with the idea, “Love One Another” after a conversation with his family at dinner one night regarding the violence that took place across the country last summer. He wanted every elementary student in Grand Junction to know that every color belongs in a crayon box. Thomas spent most of the past school year presenting his project to nearly every elementary school principal in the school district.

“We are really excited,” his mother, Jana Thomas, said. “This whole project has been so much more than we ever imagined. We love (JUCO Chairman) Jamie Hamilton and Andrew loves baseball.

“He has such a big heart. Through this whole process he would smile, then moves on. He’s humble. It’s been such an honor.”

Jouflas has been a member of the tournament committee for 35 years, serving on the trophies committee after Tillie Bishop asked him to help. Jouflas had the responsibility to make sure teams and players receive their individual and all-tournament awards. Jouflas is retiring from his service on the committee after this year’s tournament.

“I’m honored. I’m not doing anything different than anybody else on the committee,” Jouflas said. “This is my last year, so it’s a nice goodbye.

“JUCO is certainly a huge part of Grand Junction. JUCO is a way of giving back to the community. Grand Junction is a wonderful baseball town. It’s great to contribute to something that is the signature of Grand Junction. I feel lucky to do that.”

Tomlinson has photographed countless games and served as the tournament’s official photographer for several years.

One year about 25 years ago, Tomlinson took a line drive to the face down the first-base line, breaking his nose and spilling blood onto the field. Tomlinson was given the game ball when he returned later that day, which he still has.

“I remember players parting and the next thing I know I’m on the ground with blood on my face,” Tomlinson said. “I had two black eyes. I only missed that game and the next day for surgery, then shot the rest of the tournament.”

KREX-TV, the oldest television station in town, has partnered with the JUCO World Series since the tournament moved to Grand Junction, promoting the tournament on television and now on its website and social media. The station has donated advertising time and volunteered some of its services in promoting the tournament.

“For me, personally, baseball is part of it, but what I see is the energy and interaction,” KREX Sales Manager Kevin McChesney said. “There are people coming from around the country to our community — especially after a difficult year and a half. We get to welcome them to our community. We get to show off our community a little bit and that we are kind and generous. It’s an opportunity for us to shine as well.