An important player in Sabino’s successful pursuit for a Class 3A state baseball title was shortstop Preston Clifford, who should announce his college plans soon as part of his grand outlook to play professionally.
Who can doubt him? In two varsity seasons with the Sabercats — in which they won state title games (the 2018 championship was controversially taken away for various alleged infractions) — he was arguably their most valuable player batting .412.
Clifford, who batted .422 for the Sabercats this season, originally committed to New Mexico State but reopened his options after Brian Green left to coach at Washington State. Green, who has recruited Southern Arizona strongly, continues to look at prospects in this area despite moving to the Pacific Northwest.
“The experience of playing college baseball has been on my dream list since I was a little kid, so I’m just trying to go out there and have fun,” Clifford said at the recent Sun Belt College All-Star Baseball Game at Kino Stadium.
“I hope to put up a few numbers (in college) and hopefully get drafted.”
Also on Clifford’s “dream list” was to play for his father, B.J. Clifford, a former football and baseball standout at Santa Rita from 1989-92 who later went on to play baseball at New Mexico for legendary coach Rich Alday.
The Cliffords have experienced this opportunity this summer in the Sun Belt College League at Kino Stadium. B.J. is the Baseball’s Next Level Rockets’ manager and Preston is one of the BNL’s top players.
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Clifford, who does not coach for a living, seized this opportunity to be with his son this summer.
“This has been a treat for me because I haven’t coached Preston literally maybe twice in my life,” B.J. said. “And that’s why when I was presented the opportunity for the summer league, I felt it could be my last opportunity to do it with him.
“And I’m having the time of my life, not only with him but with all the kids because I know a majority of them and it’s been a treat.”
Preston’s experience playing for his dad with the BNL Rockets is one he will remember, and it goes much deeper than just seeing him every day at the ballpark.
“It’s been fun. It will be my last time really with my dad here in Tucson, so it’s kind of bittersweet but I’m having a blast,” Preston said. “It’s been a blast having him in the dugout, messing around with him. I’ve had a lot of fun.”
Blast is an appropriate word because that’s what Preston showed off his bat in the All-Star Game in front of an overflow crowd at Kino on the night of the Fourth of July festivities.
His deep fly to left field in the late innings appeared to be a home run hitting off the guard rail above the wall, but the umpires ruled that the ball hit off the wall and he wound up at second with a double.
Preston, 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, does most of his damage on the base paths with his speed. He had six home runs in his two years on the varsity team at Sabino but he tallied 24 doubles and 11 triples. He also stole 23 bases, including 15 this season.
As a right-handed pitcher, he had 20 appearances in 2018 and 2019 and posted a 1.21 ERA in 98 2/3 innings with 151 strikeouts and 46 walks. His record was 11-2.
Key to his development is being part of the BNL program, led by New York Yankees area scout Bryan Huie, of which Preston has participated in the last four years.
Hundreds of local players have elevated their game under Huie’s training, including former Arizona catcher Cesar Salazar (Sahuaro), New Mexico State infielder Nick Gonzales (Cienega) and UNLV players Nick Ames and Max Smith (both of Canyon del Oro).
“Bryan Huie, he’s a legend,” Preston said. “He gets you anywhere, you just have to prove it to him. He’ll put you out in front of the best people in the best places.
“We’re playing in some of the best tournaments against some of the best competition. It’s fun.”
B.J., who mentioned he has worked extensively individually with Preston, sees his son’s experience with BNL as very invaluable.
“It’s very structured,” B.J. said. “You know what you’re going to get. It’s been very good for Preston personally.”
Preston is listed as a West Regional All-American Honorable Mention selection as a pitcher by Perfect Game. Whatever school he chooses will get a prospect with much promise.
Others listed as honorable mention are going to programs such as ASU, Oregon State, USC, Washington and Notre Dame.
“His goal is to play some pro ball,” B.J. said. “My goal for him is to get his education.”
The elder Clifford then looked out at the baseball diamond at Kino Stadium.
“This is his tool. This is his key.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.