BAYSHORE GARDENS -- The crowd of students assembled at Wednesday's 2014 commitment ceremony at IMG Academy included a rainbow of colored T-shirts representing just about every college and university one could name.
Syracuse to Swarthmore, LSU to Limestone, Harvard to Hofstra, Wisconsin to Wagner, Utah to USF, they were all displayed proudly by the more than 140 students in IMG's class of graduating seniors.
Most of them are headed to four-year colleges in August to continue their playing careers on academic and/or athletic scholarships in tennis, football, baseball, soccer, lacrosse, basketball or golf.
Some of them, like 18-year-old lacrosse player Marc-Antoine Pion, will spend another year in IMG's post-graduate program taking classes and training in Bradenton before going off to college -- in Pion's case, at Harvard.
His time at IMG has given him a chance to experience a sort of dress rehearsal for college life with top-notch athletic facilities and student dorms.
"I think there's no place like it in the entire world," said Pion, of Montreal. "I think this is like a real prep school, on and off the field."
Rich Odell, vice president of student affairs and headmaster, said the IMG graduates in this year's class -- its biggest yet -- will be a step ahead of their college teammates and peers -- athletically, academically and socially.
"This is college before they get there," Odell said.
Tennis player Allie Baer is counting down the days
-- 110 to be exact -- before she can begin her college experience at Michigan State.
"I've watched a lot of girls and best friends leave," said Baer, 17, who is originally from Virginia but has spent the past seven years living in Bradenton and attending IMG. "I can't wait to start the next chapter."
Classmate Andrew DiLacqua, 18, has also been waiting patiently to go off to Arizona State after committing to its baseball program as a junior. The outfielder said Wednesday's commitment ceremony represents a major turning of a page in his life.
"It's a good feeling," said DiLacqua, a Pennsylvania native who now lives in Lakewood Ranch. "It's that step where it's finally, actually happening."
Catherine Leibbrandt, keynote speaker and a 2009 IMG graduate, urged the students to take advantage of experiences away from the playing field in order to prepare for the day their athletic careers come to an end.
The advice from the former USF soccer player and founder of Immeasurably More, a nonprofit that helps enhance the lives of children diagnosed with a disease or disorder, took on extra meaning when they heard more about her story. Leibbrandt was diagnosed in college with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular autoimmune disease that caused her to experience temporary paralysis and almost prematurely ended her career.
"It's what happens off the field that will stay with you forever," Leibbrandt said. "It's the relationships you build that will last a lifetime."
Also honored at Wednesday's ceremony were three juniors who were presented with academic awards from Ivy League schools: Seiya Liu, presented with the Harvard Book; Zachary Zimmerman, of Lakewood Ranch, with the Yale Book; and Francesco Martini with the Dartmouth Book.
Jason Bartolone, East Manatee Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBartolone.