Two decades ago Jeff Lightfoot came home. A 1988 graduate of Weatherford High School, he came to Weatherford College in 2003 to start a baseball program.
It wasn't long before that program became competitive on the highest level. At the start of each season the Coyotes were consistently among the favorites to contend for a conference championship, and at the end of each one they regularly found themselves battling for a regional title.
But one thing eluded Lightfoot and his program: a berth in the National Junior College Athletic Association Division I World Series. They came close on several occasions, reaching the regional final in 2004 and 2017 and reaching the fourth round of the tournament in 2008, 2010 and 2011.
Now, for the first time in school history, they are headed to the World Series. They will be one of 10 teams left standing and competing in Grand Junction, Colorado starting Saturday, May 27, in the double-elimination tournament that goes into the first weekend of June.
And while Lightfoot and his team spent this week preparing for the journey of their baseball lifetimes, he admits it still hasn't completely sunk what they have accomplished - and stand to achieve over the next week.
"I’m sure that it won’t fully hit until we walk on the field in Grand Junction," Lightfoot said of the feat.
The Coyotes are legitimate contenders to win the whole shebang. While Lightfoot has had some powerful teams in the past, this year's squad seems to have put it all together, as indicated by steamrolling through the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference with a 29-3 record, having a 50-9 overall record, sweeping opponents in the Region V Tournament and carrying an 18-game winning streak into the World Series.
And speaking of winning Region V, they did so on their home field. How sweet is that in a season filled with magic?
"Just shows you that God’s timing is perfect," Lightfoot said. "Being able to win the championship here at WC and celebrate with our community and all of the people that have invested so much in our program is a blessing. The times when we got close and did not punch the ticket makes a lot more sense now.
"I am happy for our staff, players and community to be able to experience this run. Also being able to have my son Cole on staff with us this year makes it that much sweeter."
Lightfoot is no stranger to competing in a JUCO World Series. Before coming to Weatherford he led Eastfield College in Mesquite to a Division III national championship in 2001 and before that to the championship game in 1998.
And while it does bring back some memories for him, there is just something extra special about taking a team from the community you grew up in to the pinnacle.
"It was such a different time in my coaching career it’s hard to compare. But the feeling of being one of only a (couple) handful of teams still practicing this time of a year is pretty cool. Bonding as a team and working together to win a championship is a special feeling," he said.
One could also say the field of teams in Grand Junction couldn't be more perfect for a team like the Coyotes, who are making their first appearance. Three other teams, Andrew College of Georgia (34-23), Gaston College of North Carolina (49-11) and Salt Lake City Community College of Utah (31-17) are also there for the first time.
Also, none of the teams competing have ever won a championship. The team with the most appearances is Blinn (44-13) with seven, but this is their first appearance since 2014.
Johnson County (55-8), from Overland Park, Kansas, is making its third trip, but likewise hasn't been there since 2014. Delgado Community College (45-11), from New Orleans, is in the World Series for a sixth time, but was last there in 2016.
The teams with the most recent appearances are Shelton State (31-28), from Tuscaloosa, Alabama with six trips (including this season), most recently in 2021. College of Central Florida (51-6), from Ocala, is making its second straight appearance, as is Wabash Valley (53-11), from Mount Carmel, Illinois.
With all due respect to each of those teams — all perfectly capable of hoisting the championship trophy — you have to like the Coyotes' chances. They come from arguably the toughest JUCO region in the entire country, with McLennan walking away with the championship just two years ago.
McLennan, in fact, isn't only in the same region, they are in the same conference as the Coyotes.
So, when did Lightfoot realize he had a team that was good enough to do something no other Coyotes squad had ever done?
"Honestly we have been so caught up in the process I really have not looked too far ahead. We talk every day about playing to a standard not worrying about the opponent or the scoreboard," he said. "Our eyes have been focused on the next 90 feet."
For non-baseball folks, that's the distance between bases — and the Coyotes have covered a lot of that distance this season while keeping their foes from doing the same. They average almost 10 runs per game and surrender just over three.
And while, in all honesty, they won't likely do that against the quality competition they'll be facing in Colorado, all they have to do is cover the 90 feet between third base and home a few more times than the other teams.
This season also saw Lightfoot win his 800th game as a head coach. He didn't get there by being cocky — confident, yes. In fact, he's quite humble, another winning characteristic.
Take, for example, the Region V Tournament they won to reach the World Series. Instead of basking in their historic glory, Lightfoot said, "We are grateful to all the fans, family and friends that have come out to support us this season and especially in the regional. The attendance at the regional was incredible and it had a big impact on the atmosphere.
"We are humbled and honored to represent our college, community and Region V in Grand Junction. We are looking forward to the opportunity and have every expectation to go out there and compete at a high level. Win the next 90 feet!"
A great man (don't ask who) once said "accomplishments speak louder than words" (or something like that). What the Coyotes have done this season is shouting — and, by the way, the mountains of Colorado have quite the echo, so things could get even louder this coming week.
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