By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (June 13, 2016) — For Derek Gifford, baseball extends well beyond Stephenville High School.
It even extends beyond the state of Texas.
The starting short stop at SHS as a freshman and a veteran of elite select baseball competition outside of school, Gifford is preparing to compete in the USA Baseball 17U National Team Championships with the winner earning a spot in the Junior Olympics.
“It’s a pre-Junior Olympic tournament and it’s also kind of a showcase,” said Gifford, who competes in the event with the California Baseball Academy Texas 17U team June 16-24 in West Palm Beach, Florida. “College coaches will be there, so it’s another chance to show them what you’ve got.”
Playing in front of college coaches and other talent scouts is nothing new to Gifford.
“I’ve been going to a lot of showcases in Texas, and last year I went to a Perfect Game showcase in Florida, where they test your abilities and you play games in front of college coaches and scouts,” Gifford explained. “They give you a report where they grade different aspects of your game and put it on their website for college coaches to see, so it’s a big deal.”
Florida isn’t the first out of state stop for the Stephenville native. He has also played in Louisiana, Arizona, Nevada and California.
“Every day when I wake up I think about how I can get better at baseball,” he said. “I’m either getting ready for a game or practice, or coming out to the field and throwing, hitting, whatever I can do to keep getting better. Without baseball I don’t know what I would do.”
He got his high school career off to a good start this spring, beginning the season at second base before ultimately taking over at short stop for Stephenville, which surprised its critics with a third place finish in District 6-4A followed by a two-game bi-district sweep of Burkburnett to begin the playoffs. The Yellow Jackets were eliminated by Decatur in a tough three-game area-round series.
“When this season started I wasn’t even thinking of being on the varsity, and I figured if I was I would be a backup up and just come off the bench and try to help the team,” Gifford explained. “Then in the first tournament (Stephenville head coach Justin Swenson) said I would be starting at second base, and I eventually moved to short stop (his favorite position). I got more comfortable as the year went on. I thought I was definitely playing better at the end of the year.”
He did more than just think it, he showed it.
Gifford helped on a handful of double plays in the series against Decatur and had three game-winning at bats as a freshman. But his real strength was in the field, as he committed just one error throughout district play, leaving some who follow 6-4A shaking their heads when was only listed an honorable-mention add on to the all-district team.
Of course, he was just a freshman.
“My weakness that I’m working on is hitting. I don’t think it’s a big weakness right now, but I can get better and stronger at the plate,” he said. “My biggest strengths are my fielding and throwing.”
Gifford isn’t just excited about the summer of select ball and possibly qualifying for the Junior Olympics. He’s also fired up about the next three seasons at SHS.
“I think we have some good years ahead and I’m excited about it,” he said. “We have a strong sophomore class, especially, so good things are coming.”
And the plan from there, of course, is to be playing in college. Whatever comes after that, Gifford will be prepared to take in stride, the same way he handled the pressure of starting at short stop as a freshman for a playoff contender.
“The biggest dream right now is to play college baseball somewhere and get a degree,” Gifford said. “If there’s baseball after college, that would be great and we’ll take it from there.”