For JUCO players, World Series in Grand Junction brings big crowds and homegrown fans

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A baseball catcher crouched with his glove grazing the dirt
Courtesy of Whit Winfield
Whit Winfield, a catcher the Shelton State Community College Buccaneers, is at Grand Junction’s JUCO World Series for the second year in a row.

Updated 6:13 p.m. on May 28, 2024.

For baseball players on junior and community college teams, the height of their sport can be described in two words: Grand Junction. 

The western Colorado city has hosted the Junior College World Series since 1959. JUCO, as it’s best known, features 10 Division One teams from across the country, with eight days of games and, of course, only one winner.

In Grand Junction, the JUCO tournament is like a weeklong holiday, packing restaurants and hotels, and bringing in an estimated $2.8 million to the local economy, according to the local Chamber of Commerce. On any given JUCO night, downtown is filled with pedestrians toting foldable stadium seats and little flags for their favorite teams. 

JUCO is “the pinnacle,” said Whit Winfield, a catcher for Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa, Ala. “I mean, it’s everyone’s main goal.”

This is the second year in a row that he and his team, the Buccaneers, have made it to the tournament. Though they’re more than 1,500 miles from home, Winfield said they feel welcome in a land of dry air, high elevation and tumbleweeds. Back in Tuscaloosa, the community college team has nowhere near the fanbase of the University of Alabama or even some high school teams. Instead, the teammates “play for each other,” Winfield said.

But a typical JUCO World Series game in Grand Junction draws thousands.

“So when we get to come out here and have a bunch of fans here rooting for us” and then still have that sense of playing for their teammates, there’s “nothing better than that,” Winfield said.

Tyman Long, a center with the College of Southern Nevada Coyotes, high-fives teammates at the JUCO World Series in Grand Junction in May 2024.

Nicky Garritano, a second baseman with the College of Southern Nevada in Hendersonville, said the local fans are “awesome.” At a recent picnic organized for the tournament players, Garritano said children and adults kept walking up and asking for his signature.

“That was really cool,” Garritano said, “something that I've never really been a part of before.”

This is actually his second time at the JUCO event, but his first on the field. His father, Nick Garritano, is also his coach and brought him to watch the team compete in the national tournament in 2017. Coach Garritano said he drills into his son and his teammates that a big part of being at JUCO is presenting yourself well — using “sir” and “ma’am” with the locals and staying humble, kind and considerate.

“I think through that, you gain fans,” Coach Garritano said. 

It also helps if you pack plenty of T-shirts and hats to give away to strangers who could become potential fans who root for you throughout the week — and maybe even follow your team in the future.

“They make these kids feel like rock stars,” the coach said, adding that he cautions the players not to take it for granted. “Not every team gets to go to the World Series every year.”

Mascot Mr. Juco high-fives young fans at the JUCO World Series in Grand Junction in May 2024.

For Dash O’Neill, who coaches the Georgia Highlands College Chargers, being at JUCO isn’t just an honor, it’s a chance to show his players what’s important in life. His Cartersville, Georgia-based team participated in an adaptive baseball league for young people in Grand Junction. The Challenger Baseball Program is for players ages 8-21, and O’Neill’s team was one of several that were “buddies” for Challenger players at the final game of their season last week.

As the father of a 9-year-old son with special needs, O’Neill said it filled him with joy to hear how much working with these kids meant to his players.

“Their eyes light up and their minds open up that there's so much more going on in the world than what's happening just in their realm,” he said. “I think it touches their hearts in a really important way.”

O’Neill believes this experience will stay with his players forever — just as their entire time at JUCO will, no matter how they fare in the competition.

Players with the Shelton State Community College baseball from Tuscaloosa, Ala., celebrate at the JUCO World Series in Grand Junction.

His team is in “awe” of Colorado’s scenery, from the snow and trees in the mountains to the mesas and nearly endless vistas of the state’s western edge.

“They love it,” O’Neill said. “I mean, I've had so many of them come to me already and say: ‘This is the best trip of my life.’ And that's what makes it really worthwhile.”

The winning team in the JUCO World Series will be crowned on May 31 – or June 1 if necessary. The games can be streamed on ESPN+.