From the moment the sun rises until the last bit of daylight sinks away, there are two places you will likely find Devon DeRaad. Either he is in the batting cage at Anderson Field, honing the swing that made him a 1st-Team All-American, or he is perched on the side of a hill cataloging the actions of rare birds. Yes, the most powerful force in SCIAC baseball is an avid bird watcher and aspiring scientist. DeRaad shows us that it is possible to fully commit yourself to multiple passions, truly embodying the concept of a scholar-athlete.
When did you know that Oxy was the right school for you?
I knew Oxy was the right school for me after visiting in the spring of my senior year. For me, it had the perfect mix of a tight-knit residential campus, great academics, and a solid athletics program.
What first got you interested in birds?
I have been interested in the natural world for as long as I can remember. My favorite thing to do when I was a kid was to go collect bugs. When I was in high school, I started watching birds in my backyard and got hooked. When I came to Oxy and realized that we had the largest Mexican bird collection in the world it seemed like a natural fit, and I became even more engrossed in birds and how they are studied.
What do your teammates think about your bird watching?
In high school, I would stand in the outfield during batting practice and watch for ravens flying by and tell my teammates that if we saw a raven it was a good omen. It sounds crazy, but I think my teammates thought it was pretty funny. At Oxy, teammates seem to think it’s pretty cool. Everyone here has tons of intellectual interests that you would never expect, and I have never felt like I have to be a “jock” and can’t be a scientist. One of my favorite things about Oxy is that having unusual interests is encouraged rather than made fun of.
Why is studying birds important?
After working in the Moore Lab, I could go on forever about the value of museum collections for studying natural history. There are about 10,000 bird species globally and they all perform vitally important ecosystem functions and we can’t afford to lose them! I believe that science for the sake of greater understanding of the natural world is worthwhile, but as humans continue to dominate the planet, conservation is quickly becoming the number one concern in biology.
Is there a particular professor that has had an impact on you during your time at Oxy?
Both professors McCormack and Zellmer, who I have done independent research with, have been incredible influences on me during my time at Oxy. They inspired me to believe that doing high-quality science is more important than ever. The support and encouragement that I have received from them has been the single biggest factor in my hope to pursue graduate school and a future career as a scientist.
Do your professors support your athletic endeavors?
Absolutely, I think there is an inherent respect that professors have for a student that they see showing up to an 8:30 a.m. class after 6 a.m. workouts and working just as hard as the rest of the class. Especially in the sciences, I have felt like my professors enjoyed getting to know someone with different on-campus involvements and experiences than the typical science major.
Do you think that you would be able to be as active in academic and campus life if you were at another school?
I think about this a lot, coming out of high school I would have jumped at any Division I school offering me a 25% scholarship to come play baseball. Looking back, I couldn’t have made a better decision socially, academically, or athletically than coming to Oxy. From what I understand of DI sports, where your coach controls your scholarship, the ability to engage with the rest of campus life outside of your sport is much less feasible. Being at a DIII school, with no athletic scholarships has been integral to my college experience. I couldn’t be more thankful that I am at a school where I can spend the entire summer doing academic research, spend an entire semester abroad studying ecology, take all the labs necessary to graduate with a biology degree and play a varsity NCAA sport simultaneously.
Can you talk a little bit about your time studying abroad? Where and what you studied? Highlights of the trip?
I spent a semester in Cairns, Queensland in Australia doing an integrative field ecology program, where I got to hike through the tropical rainforests of North Queensland and spend 10 days snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. For the last month, I worked as a field assistant for a researcher from Charles Darwin University, helping him catch and tag the critically endangered Glyphis glyphis sharks in the Adelaide River. The entire semester was a blast and an experience I will always be thankful for.
How have you been able to balance your passions for baseball and ornithology?
Honestly, I think they complement each other, the ability to relax and get out into nature makes me a better, more focused and relaxed baseball player. I took a class last spring in which one of our responsibilities was to be a student leader for the first Oxy BioBlitz. The Bioblitz itself was an all-day event on a Saturday, and we play a doubleheader every Saturday in the spring so I had to find a way to make it work. I ended up leading a bird survey around campus from 6:30-7:30 that morning, walking straight over to the baseball field to get on the bus to go to Pomona and play a doubleheader. I was worried that the odd schedule would mess with me, but I hit a homerun first at-bat of the day and we swept the doubleheader to win the series.
How did someone recruited as a starting pitcher become one of the most feared hitters in Division III Baseball?
I needed a lot of polish on the offensive side in high school. Unfortunately, the first time I got really good training and approach advice was before my senior year and it was too late to show out for any college coaches. I appreciate the Oxy coaches giving me a shot on both sides and letting me figure it out.
What keeps you motivated to put in all the extra hours in the batting cage that you do?
I think a growth mindset is the number one thing you need to get good at anything in life. I firmly believe that every single time I hit or lift, I am getting better. I always jokingly say “10,000 hours”, but I really believe it. If you want to be the best of the best, it has to be second nature.
What is the best thing about Occidental Baseball?
The best thing about Occidental Baseball is the group of guys we have. I feel like I have a group of people around me who understand exactly what I’m going through at almost all times. My teammates are the first people I would go to whether I need to laugh or cry, and either is totally fine. That’s the best part about Oxy baseball, the players embody the supportive, caring community that the campus prides itself on. I don’t think it’s super common to be able to say that a group of college guys provides an emotionally understanding, accepting space, but that is 100 percent what we have built.
What has been your favorite moment as a member of the Oxy baseball team?
The day that we clinched hosting the SCIAC tournament last year is hands down my favorite day as part of the program. I think we all felt like we had officially arrived on that day once we knew that Cal Lu, Redlands and Chapman all had to come to our place and get through us. I think that was huge for our confidence, and for the program going forward.
After all of your individual success and the team winning the 2016 SCIAC Championship, do you feel any extra pressure going into this season?
To be perfectly honest with you, I do. I came into last season off of a semester abroad without the fall to create expectations and just did my thing. It all came together naturally and I loved that. This year has higher expectations, there is no way around it. I think admitting that and addressing it is the key to managing the stress and performance anxiety that will inevitably occur this season. I have worked hard this offseason on breathing techniques to ground me and slow my heart rate as I enter the batter’s box. I’m hoping that effort will translate to a better approach and pitch recognition this season. I think all of us have a little bit more ego, a little bit more swagger, and a little bit more expectation this year. And I think that’s ok.
After you’re done with baseball what are your career plans?
Currently, I’m hoping to play for as long as I can. Then I want to take a year to be discerning about applying to grad school and finding a good fit in a systematic biology lab, ideally studying birds.
Bigger thrill: Hitting a home run or spotting a California Scrub Jay?
Spotting an awesome bird is extremely satisfying, but nothing beats the adrenaline rush of crushing a baseball!