By NATE MARTINEZ
Preston Clifford likes to win.
“If you’re a winner, you’re gonna find a way to win,” said the sophomore infielder for Pima Community College’s Baseball team. I think that’s something that — I don’t wanna say it the wrong way — but not everybody has. You’re gonna find a way. You’re gonna give up anything you can to win.”
That is the mentality that Clifford has adopted since first stepping foot on the baseball field at Sabino High School, a lesson that he carries to this day.
“I think that’s one thing at Sabino we did do,” Clifford said. “We didn’t care how it looked, or what it looked like or how it sounded. It’s all or nothing. I think that’s something I take into my game every day.”
At 5 feet, 10 inches and 180 pounds, Clifford never has been the biggest person on the team. But it is that all-or-nothing attitude that earned him the title as captain for his last three high school years and two state title wins.
Clifford was a standout two-way player at Sabino, pitching for the Sabercats and batting an incredible .420.
He comes from a line of athletes. His father, B.J. Clifford, played baseball at the University of New Mexico, and his mother, Dana, was a former volleyball player at Central Arizona. Both encouraged their son to try a variety of sports and strive to be the best at them.
Before Clifford was winning state titles and being awarded Southern Arizona Player of the Year, he was a multisport athlete with a passion for both baseball and soccer.
“I played a lot of soccer growing up,” Clifford said. “I actually know a lot of the Pima soccer guys out here because I used to play club with them. I gave it up my eighth grade year because that’s when club started to become a big thing for athletes. I was splitting a lot of time between both (soccer and baseball), and I wasn’t very good at either one.”
It is these kinds of accomplishments that earned him a scholarship to Washington State University under head coach Brian Green. Clifford originally committed to New Mexico State University until Green left the program to join the Cougars.
After two years of playing in Pullman, Washington, where he started only 28 games, all at second base, Clifford decided it would be better for him to transfer to Grand Canyon University for more opportunities.
“It’s nothing against Washington State at all,” Clifford said. “I just thought it was in my best interest if I wanted to get playing time and get my best shot at playing college baseball, whether it’s at the junior college level, or at the D-I level.”
After successful talks with GCU head coach Andy Stankiewicz and assistant/recruiting coach Gregg Wallis, the move for Clifford to transfer was made official last October.
“I want an opportunity to play, and I don’t wanna be held short of that,” Clifford said.
He said he told the GCU staff, “I’ll come to you guys, but I want a true opportunity to play the game.”
“I don’t wanna not get the right opportunity and feel like I had more in the tank that I wasn’t able to show,” he said. “I feel like they, out of all people, were gonna give me that best opportunity to prove myself to be a starting position player.”
Clifford made the stop back to Tucson to play the 2022 season with the Aztecs, a place where he feels very comfortable.
Clifford decided to play his sophomore season with Pima after building a strong relationship with head coach Ken Jacome, a bond that was forged in Clifford’s sophomore year of high school.
“When coach Jac came to me, it was really cool,” Clifford said. “I was young. I wasn’t used to the whole recruiting thing. He kind of took me under his wing. I kind of just built this bond with Jac that he’s gonna take care of me. He’s really black and white in a really good way. That’s what I really like in a coach.”
What Clifford appreciates the most about playing in his hometown is playing under Jacome and in front of his family and friends.
“The biggest thing for me was having my parents being able to see me play every single day,” Clifford said. “That’s what meant the most to me. Yeah, it’s fun playing in Tucson, but having my parents be here in the stands, my family, friends, that’s what means the most to me at the end of the day. And playing for Jac, who’s also a local guy, it just makes my day.”
Pima has enjoyed success this season, racking up a 33-17 record, 18-14 in the ACCAC, heading into this weekend.
The Aztecs are in the Top 10 in their conference in most offensive categories. The addition of Clifford only bolsters the roster even more thanks to his .364 batting average, 40 RBIs, 50 runs and 20 stolen bases.
“I think it’s just trusting myself and understanding the game,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that happen in baseball where you have to give up at-bats in order to be good, good as in the team being good, not just yourself.
“At the end of the day, I’m more so doing things for the team than I am for myself. I’m not looking to talk about my stats or what I’m doing.”
Despite the tremendous season that Clifford and the rest of the team is having, the Aztecs are two games behind for a spot in the playoffs.
With six games left, Clifford understands the position the Aztecs are in and what they need to do to continue playing after the regular season.
“We need to play spotless baseball,” Clifford said. “We need to play really clear, fundamental baseball. Right now, it’s make-or-break and there’s not much we could do about it.
“We’re gonna have to have some luck down the road for some teams to lose. For us, we need to play really clear, fundamental baseball.”