North Broward Prep was getting no-hit and its dream of a state championship three-peat was slipping away Friday afternoon.
Eagles senior pitcher Riley Luft was hearing the chirping from the opposing Gulliver dugout.
Luft fielded a comebacker, and tossed a nonchalant, high-arcing throw to first, recording the final out of the sixth inning and charged back to his dugout.
Luft, not often one to hold back his emotions on the baseball field, couldn’t wait to get another turn at-bat.
It came with one out in the seventh inning and Luft took full advantage, barreling a triple into the right-center field gap to break Gulliver starter Brixton Lofgren’s string of 6⅓ no-hit innings.
Luft’s hit opened the floodgates and only a few minutes later, he and his North Broward Prep teammates were racing around the field at Hammond Stadium, celebrating an improbable 5-4 comeback win over Gulliver in a Class 3A state semifinal following shortstop Mateo Gray’s two-run walk-off single.
“I don’t think I got a fastball that at-bat so I just choked up and just hit it to right center,” Luft said. “We had to just keep fighting because Brixton was dealing. We just needed that one hit and I was happy I got it.”
North Broward Prep (26-4), which has had its share of dramatic victories during its first two championship seasons, took it to another level and will now get a chance to win a third when it takes on Clearwater Calvary Christian (27-4) on Saturday at 2 p.m. in the 3A final.
Gulliver (19-11) nearly made its first state semifinal appearance since 2015 one for the ages thanks to Lofgren, who had six strikeouts (one in each of the first six innings), three walks and one hit batter through 6 ⅓ innings.
But in the seventh, the Eagles began connecting on Lofgren’s curveball and making hard contact.
“I thought I had it, and going into the seventh I was confident,” Lofgren said. “But they got me. They started hitting and balls were landing in gaps. They didn’t get it through walks. They got it through hits.”
Following Luft’s hit, T.J. Gramesty singled to break the shutout. But Gulliver’s problems grew when Nick Koorse and A.J. Cutler followed with another RBI single. Lofgren then walked Branden Hoch to load the bases and send Gulliver’s bullpen scrambling. Mauricio Bejarano kept the line moving with another RBI single, setting up Gray’s winning hit moments later.
“We saw him earlier in the year at their place and it was kind of the same situation where he didn’t have a feel for his fastball and relied on his curveball all day,” Gray said. “From the fourth inning to the end it was curveball. At that point if I saw two fastballs I was going to swing.”
North Broward Prep coach Brian Campbell said after the game he felt like body slamming Luft after his dangerous throw to first in the sixth. Instead, he hugged him and high-fived his players after executing such a stark turnaround and saving their season.
“This kid pitched in the state championship game his freshman year and had two huge games at the plate last year too,” Campbell said. “Our junior class only knows winning and they expect to win. When you have that kind of attitude and some talent too, it’s pretty special. They didn’t flinch and were pretty calm the entire time.”
Luft’s was the spark. But it would not have come without his equally-important contribution on the mound in relief after Gulliver scored all four of its runs in the first inning off starter Jensen Seculer.
After A.J. Argudin walked and George Lombard single to open the game, they moved into scoring position on a wild pitch. Luca Mendez delivered a two-run single. The Raiders would get two more on a throwing error by Luft and a bloop single by Aiden Aparicio.
Luft entered in the fourth and pitched four perfect innings.
For Gulliver it was a tough way to end a resilient postseason after the Raiders strung three close wins together in the wake of the abrupt dismissal of coach Omar Borges for undisclosed reasons.
“I’m proud of every single one of the guys on the team,” Lombard said. “We faced everything you could possibly face and we battled.”