Growing up as part of an 11-member family in Winter Haven, Luke Borders followed the lead of his older brother Levi throughout their childhood.
The Borders family, headed by parents Pat and Kathy, is comprised of nine children whose names are nearly as close as the bond they share. Though Luke was constantly surrounded by his eight siblings — Levi, Lance, Lindsay, Laura-Beth, Leah, Lily, Livia and Landry Kate — it was Levi who he connected with the most.
The two are just 14 months apart and have spent countless hours together playing and competing. When Levi came to play for USF baseball in 2013, it didn’t take much convincing for Luke to commit soon after.
Now, as one of just two seniors who have played all four years at USF, Luke finds himself in a new position.
“Being the younger brother, I’ve never really had to be a leader, so it’s new,” he said. “It’s very new to me, I’ve had to learn how to become a leader and a role model. I’m sure all the younger guys look up to me.
“I’m more of a lead by example guy, I’m not really vocal in terms of leading. It’s different now that my brother isn’t here, I have to do what he did and I’ve learned from him in a few ways.”
Though Levi’s career ended in the spring of 2016 when he was sidelined with a bacterial infection, he still lives with Luke and starting shortstop Kevin Merrell in their off-campus apartment.
With underclassmen comprising well over half of the roster, Luke didn’t have much of a choice in becoming a role model for the younger players.
But according to teammates, it’s a transition he’s embraced well.
“He’s always working hard,” Merrell said. “In the weight room, on the field, wherever it is, he’s always working hard. Leaders, they don’t always have to be vocal. Sometimes with vocal leaders, (teammates) don’t really listen to you because you don’t do it, you just talk about it.
“He doesn’t need to talk about it because he gets it done and the team follows his lead.”
Guided by a father who spent 17 seasons at the MLB level and won two World Series with the Toronto Blue Jays, Luke and Levi were raised with the advantage of having an experienced professional as their everyday coach.
Pat Borders won a World Series MVP and an Olympic Gold Medal during his playing days, but has since devoted his time to coaching.
Aside from instructing his sons in the backyard, he also coached some of their teams — even taking over as the head coach at Winter Haven High School for Luke’s senior season.
“He has a passion for the sport, obviously,” Luke said. “I think I saw that in his eyes and how much he wanted me to play. I think seeing that gave me a little fire to want to play too.”
As the two brothers grew up, they lived for competition with each other. Whether it was who could get the most hits or who could eat the most servings of dinner, their friendly feuds fueled them to eventually become key players for USF.
And even though much time has passed since their days of playing around in the backyard, it’s still not often that one can be found without the other.
“It’s just nice to be around him and be able to joke around,” Luke said. “There’s no way to explain it, but it’s just nice to have him around and still be able to play and joke around. Me and him sometimes will sit on the porch in rocking chairs and drink coffee and talk.
“Sometimes we’ll go out and shoot guns and stuff, but most of the time we’re out fishing. Me and him love fishing, we’ll go out in a little johnboat and just relax.”
In the time since Levi has been away from the team, Luke has become a silent leader for the Bulls. Hitting third in the order and the only senior offensive player on the team, Luke has become someone the underclassmen look to for leadership.
“Everyone loves him,” Merrell said. “He’s one of those guys who you love to be around. He’s always smiling, he’s never in a bad mood or anything. Just being around him brightens your day. As far as the team, he’s carrying us on offense, he’s kind of been the spark for us on offense lately.”
Playing primarily as the team’s designated hitter, Luke has started all 41 of USF’s games, hitting .356 with six homers and 39 RBIs.
In a matter of three weeks, he will conclude his final regular season as a Bull and join his brother as an alumnus of USF.
USF coach Mark Kingston said what he’ll miss most about Luke is the work ethic and positivity he brings to the locker room, and of course his bat in the middle of the lineup.
As for the next level, Kingston said the designated hitter deserves a shot.
“I’m hoping that someone wants to give him a chance,” he said. “It’ll be a little harder since he doesn’t play defense, but he’s such a great left-handed hitter and he has professional size that we’re all hoping he gets his chance.”
With playing professionally in the back of his mind, Luke will still have a chance to make some lasting memories down the stretch of the season as USF looks to play in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years.
As the conclusion of a career full of clutch moments and memorable wins begins counting down, Luke said that’s not what he’ll remember when he looks back at his time at USF.
“I’ll more so miss being with the team,” Luke said. “There were a few clutch moments I had, but those aren’t the memories you really have, you have the memories of being with the team and having fun with them. That’s what sticks out to me.”