After having beaten Key West, the school from the southern-most city in the United States, North Broward Prep now faces a team representing the western-most locale in the Florida Panhandle.
Geography aside, North Broward Prep (20-9) has a monumental baseball challenge on Wednesday in a Class 4A state semifinal against Pensacola Catholic (24-4). First pitch is set for 1 p.m. at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers.
Pensacola Catholic is the two-time defending state champion and is making its fourth consecutive trip to the Final Four. The school had won 43 games in a row before its streak was snapped this year.
In 2011, Pensacola Catholic blanked North Broward Prep 5-0 in the state semifinals. That ended the longest run in North Broward Prep baseball history.
“[Pensacola Catholic] ran the bases aggressively and put pressure on us,” seventh-year North Broward Prep Coach Brian Campbell said. “But everybody is good at this point. I’m more worried about us and making sure we play well.”
That’s certainly happening lately. The Eagles have won 15 of its past 17 games, including district and regional championships.
Three of its four elimination games have been decided by one run — a 6-5 district semifinal win over Pine Crest, a 3-2 regional semifinal victory over Chaminade and a 5-4 regional final thriller over Key West.
North Broward Prep senior catcher Mack Nathanson has emerged as a hero. He had a bases-loaded walk-off walk to beat Pine Crest in extra innings. And then he hit a walk-off solo home run to eliminate a tradition-rich Key West team that came in with a 24-2-1 record.
“Perfect timing,” Campbell said of Nathanson’s first homer of the season.
Nathanson, who has signed to play Division I baseball at Wofford (Spartanburg, S.C.), is hitting just .279. But he missed about half the season due to a back injury.
“In the beginning of the season, he played through the injury, and it hurt his [stats],” Campbell said.
Campbell said this is the healthiest his team has been all year.
“For a while, we played with only 10 available position players,” said Campbell, citing injuries to outfielder Hernando Sierra, pitcher Anthony Masiello and second baseman Chase Williams.
Now that they’re back, they will try to avenge their school’s 2011 loss to Pensacola Catholic, which finished 2012 ranked No. 3 in the nation in the ESPN poll and ended last year No. 1 in the country by USA Today.
In Wednesday’s game, Campbell would love to start his ace, senior left-hander Alex Ernestine, who has committed to play next season for Division I Nicholls State (Thibodaux, La.).
But Ernestine (5-1, 2.89) threw 104 pitches against Key West. He usually pitches on five days rest, which would slot him for Thursday night’s title game — if North Broward Prep gets there — against the winner of the other semifinal between Ocala’s Trinity Catholic (21-8) and Fort Myers’ Bishop Verot (24-5).
Trinity Catholic has two Division I recruits — pitcher Jesse Lepore (Miami) and first baseman Dash Winningham (Florida Gulf Coast). Bishop Verot outfielder Evan Dougherty has signed with Duke.
If it’s not Ernestine on Wednesday, then Campbell could turn to Masiello (4-3, 2.28), a sophomore left-hander who started the regional semifinal. Not an option is former No. 2 starter Cristian Monero, who had his appendix removed a week ago.
“We will have to wait for the next day or so before we decide,” said Campbell, who also mentioned junior right-hander Brian Fagan (2-2, 3.85) as an option. “We’ll see who makes sense.”