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From Harper to Puckett, Grand Junction a JUCO baseball mecca

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A few years before Bryce Harper was hitting home runs at big league ballparks, the slugger had dreams of bashing baseballs in western Colorado. Getting to Grand Junction, of all places, means you've made it to the JUCO World Series. And for every junior college player, that has been the dream destination since 1959. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken, File)

A few years before Bryce Harper was hammering home runs at big league ballparks, the slugger had dreams of bashing baseballs in western Colorado.

Getting to Grand Junction means you’ve made it to the JUCO World Series. And for every junior college player, that has been the dream destination since 1959, with Suplizio Field and its majestic mountain backdrop serving as host.

“When I look back, I can say one of my favorite times I ever had on the baseball field and one of the greatest years of my life was playing JUCO,” Harper says of playing in 2010 for the College of Southern Nevada in the upcoming book, “JUCO’s Journey.”

“And the JUCO World Series,” he added, “was icing on the cake.”

Kirby Puckett played there in 1982 with Triton College, years before he won two World Series with the Minnesota Twins on his way to the Hall of Fame. Long before his bloody sock became the stuff of Red Sox legend, Curt Schilling took the mound for Yavapai College in 1986.

The likes of Gary Gentry, Kurt Bevacqua, Jim Leyritz, Eric Gagne, Travis Hafner, Cliff Lee, John Lackey, Adam LaRoche and Brandon Belt are also on the list of more than 120 future major leaguers who have played on junior college baseball’s biggest stage.

Similar to its NCAA Division I counterpart in Omaha, Nebraska, the JUCO World Series is fully embraced by Grand Junction, a city of about 60,000 located nearly 250 miles west-southwest of Denver. The weeklong celebration of baseball has been in the leadoff spot for a few generations of residents, fans, players and coaches alike.

“The quest to get to Grand Junction is the lifeblood of junior college baseball,” former San Jacinto College-North (Texas) coach and current Rice skipper Wayne Graham said in “JUCO’s Journey,” written by Patti Arnold with Richard Rosenblatt.

This year’s 10-team field begins play Saturday in the double-elimination tournament and includes five-time champion San Jacinto, last year’s runner-up which holds the tournament record for titles and is in the JUCO World Series for the 22nd time; two-time winner Cowley College (Kansas); first-time participants Dyersburg State (Tennessee), Florence-Darlington Tech (South Carolina) — which launched a GoFundMe page to help pay for travel expenses — and Wallace-Dothan (Alabama), whose coach is former big league catcher Mackey Sasser; Chipola (Florida); McLennan (Texas); Wabash Valley (Illinois); Crowder (Missouri); and Southern Nevada, making its first appearance since Harper’s squad.

“Congrats and good luck to the CSN Coyotes baseball team on getting back to Grand Junction!” Harper wrote on Twitter earlier this week. “Get you a title boys???? #Yotes #JCWS.”

Here are a few things to know about the JUCO World Series, past and present:

JOURNEY TO JUNCTION: This year marks the 60th anniversary of the first world series, which was played in Miami, Oklahoma, with Cameron State College (Oklahoma) defeating Northeastern Oklahoma A&M 9-6. After rain kept attendance low, the NJCAA Division I tournament moved to Grand Junction on a trial run for one year — with the caveat that Mesa College, the local team, automatically qualify to draw fans. Mesa College, now Division II Colorado Mesa University, never won, but the tournament was so well-received one year turned into three. Several renewals later, a 25-year contract was signed to keep the JUCO World Series there through the 2035 season.

HOW TO GET THERE?: Teams qualify for the JUCO World Series by advancing from regional tournaments and district championships. There are 10 districts geographically spread around the country. Teams from Texas have won it 20 times, while Arizona-based teams are second with 13. One team from New York has won the title: Nassau Community College in 1966.

HARPER’S HEAVE: The talented slugger was just 17 when he helped lead Southern Nevada to the series. The Washington Nationals outfielder was a catcher back then and he even caught his brother, Bryan, in a win. Harper, who hit .462 with two homers and nine RBIs in the series, was ejected in the Coyotes’ fourth game for arguing a called third strike with an umpire. He was suspended two games and Southern Nevada was eliminated with a loss in its next game. Harper had to watch his team’s season end on a computer from his hotel room. It wasn’t all bad news for him, though; he was the No. 1 pick in the draft a few weeks later.

TRITON’S TITANS: Puckett had an incredible performance in 1982, going 11 for 16 for a .688 batting average that is tied with three others for the JUCO World Series record . He wasn’t the only notable player on that Triton team, though, with future All-Star Lance Johnson and second-round draft pick Larry Jackson roaming the Trojans’ outfield.

FRANKLY FANTASTIC: Howard College (Texas) won the 1991 championship behind Frank Rodriguez, a shortstop and right-handed pitcher who won the Dick Howser Trophy as college baseball’s top player that year. He hit .333 in Grand Junction and struck out 17 in the title-game win over Manatee (Florida).

KING GEORGE: Pima College (Arizona) infielder George Arias holds the record with three grand slams in 1992, including two in a 17-5 win over Wallace State College (Alabama). He drove in 17 runs in that series, one off the all-time mark set by Greg Geren of Cleveland State in 1980.

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Colorado officials to focus on treatment, enforcement to curb heroin epidemic

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Colorado officials said Tuesday that they hope a two-fold approach will prevent the growth of the state’s heroin epidemic.

Federal and state officials announced plans to focus on prosecuting dealers and use local law enforcement to link people addicted to the drug to treatment options.

According to an updated report also released Tuesday, 228 people died in Colorado in 2016 from heroin overdoses. That’s an increase of 43 percent compared to 2015, when 160 heroin overdose deaths were reported.

Colorado U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer said his office is working with the Drug Enforcement Agency and local prosecutors to bring federal charges against traffickers of heroin, fentanyl and other dangerous drugs. Federal prosecutions can lead to longer sentences and those convicted serve time in far-flung federal prisons rather than state prisons, sending a warning to other dealers, Troyer said.

“This is not a mass incarceration argument,” Troyer said. “This is an exacting, targeting argument on those causing the most harm.”

The second half of the strategy will encourage local law enforcement to help people addicted to the drug get access to treatment through a state hotline.

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said local law enforcement quickly learn to recognize the difference between someone who is dealing and someone who is caught in the grip of addiction.

“We’re doing something that we haven’t done in a long time,” Spurlock said. “And that is go after the pushers but have an equally opposing force on the user and helping those folks get off.”

Under the new plan, officers can contact the hotline directly or encourage people with addiction to use it as a resource.

State health officials said the hotline operators walk callers through the process of finding treatment options.

The effort doesn’t have any new financial backing. Officials with the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Area program said they will direct $4 million in existing funds toward law enforcement task forces aggressively targeting heroin dealers.

“We don’t want to become an East coast, a West Virginia or Ohio,” said Tom Gorman, director of the program. “We want to take a proactive approach and say we want to stop this in Colorado.”

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Denver seeks cannabis tax hike to ease housing crisis

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Denver officials have unveiled a plan that would have marijuana buyers help pay for an expansion of the city’s 10-year, $150 million affordable housing fund.

The Denver Post reports Mayor Michael Hancock and other city officials on Monday unveiled the proposal that, if approved, would increase the city’s 3.5 percent special tax on recreational marijuana sales to 5.5 percent.

The tax hike requires only council approval since Denver voters capped the special local tax at 15 percent when they approved it in 2013.

The city’s shorter-term plan is to subsidize the building or preservation of 3,000 income-restricted apartments and other housing units in the next five years. The Denver Post reports that the proposal would allow the city to up its goal of 3,000 apartments to 6,400.

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Colorado teachers takeover Capitol demanding better school funding

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Hundreds of public school teachers swarmed the Colorado state Capitol on Monday, shuttering one suburban Denver school district to demand better salaries, as lawmakers were set to debate a pension reform measure that would cut retirement benefits and take-home pay.

With the demonstrations, Colorado educators join peers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona who have staged strikes or high-profile protests in recent weeks to draw attention to what teachers unions see as a growing crisis in the profession.

In Colorado the need is especially stark – and apparently at odds with a state economy that ranks among the nation’s best. The average teacher salary – $46,155 in 2016 -ranks 46th among states and Washington, D.C., according to the latest figures from the National Education Association.

By another metric, Colorado’s dead last. The Education Law Center, an advocacy group, said this year that Colorado’s teacher salaries are the worst in the nation “when compared to professionals with similar education levels.”

Teachers rallied in and outside the building Monday, holding signs and chanting slogans including “You left me no choice. I have to use my teacher voice.” They drew honks from passing cars before heading inside, where their cheers and songs resonated throughout the Golden Dome, drawing lawmakers out of their respective chambers to investigate the noise.

Washington, D.C., native Callie Gonyea, who is in her second year teaching at Ellis Elementary School in Denver, said she was surprised to learn that Colorado spending was so far below the national average given the number of people moving to the state and the millions of dollars raised in taxes on legalized marijuana.

“There’s no reason we should be down there,” said the second-grade teacher, who walked outside the Capitol holding a sign that said “We(e’)d like the weed money, man.”

Gonyea said she would like to see more funding to pay for mental health treatment at her school, which has one full-time psychologist. She said her class alone has three students who would benefit from daily check-ins with the therapist.

While recent teacher protests have come in firmly red states, Colorado has a Democratic governor and a Legislature split between Democrats and Republicans, but it has some of the strictest spending limits in the country thanks to a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 1992, and all tax hikes require voter approval.

Education advocates have filed statewide ballot measures this year to raise revenue for schools, but past attempts have repeatedly been rejected by voters.

It’s not clear if Colorado’s activism could be a sign of protests spreading to more Democratic-leaning states. There are two blue states are in the bottom half of per pupil spending with Colorado — California at 35 and Oregon at 36.

Monday’s demonstration was organized by the state’s largest teachers union, the Colorado Education Association, which estimated the morning crowd at 400. Englewood Schools Superintendent Wendy Rubin said that over 70 percent of the district’s faculty was expected to be absent so classes were cancelled Monday.

School funding has been at the forefront of the state’s spending fights for years, but organizers said this year’s lobbying day drew additional interest in light of recent demonstrations across the country.

Democratic lawmakers cheered the protests on Monday, stopping to pose for selfies with the teachers. But Republicans questioned the timing of the demonstrations in a year that lawmakers are expected to increase K-12 funding by the largest amount in recent memory.

“As a lifelong educator — I was in education for 40 years — I can see what the concerns are, but quite frankly this year they’re totally unfounded,” said state Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida. “I find it kind of ironic that we have the stirring up of the CEA troops and bringing them to the Capitol today when we’re considering a school finance bill this year which has the biggest increase since 2008.”

Colorado currently underfunds its schools by $822 million annually, pinching rural areas in particular, where school districts face teacher shortages. Lawmakers in next year’s budget plan to “buy down” the annual amount owed to schools by $150 million, and boost per-pupil spending by 6 percent. It’s unclear if the additional funding will result in lasting raises in the poorest districts, where superintendents complain of losing teachers to places like Walmart.

A sweeping pension reform effort moving through the Legislature could require districts and teachers alike to contribute more to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, which faces an unfunded debt of at least $32 billion. And a property-tax limiting provision of the state constitution is expected to trigger cuts to local school funding in 2019.

Colorado recently ranked 40th in spending per student according to 2013 figures from the National Center for Education Statistics compiled by the Colorado School Finance Project.

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