Sports

IMG Academy’s two football teams will coexist this fall

Head football coach Kevin Wright talks to players after a spring football practice at IMG Academy in Bradenton.
Head football coach Kevin Wright talks to players after a spring football practice at IMG Academy in Bradenton. zwittman@bradenton.com

For the next four weeks, IMG Academy players will walk out to their practice fields in the shadow of IMG Academy Field with 98 athletes and more coaches than a standard high school would know what to do with. The nearly 100 athletes will spend the fall camp intermingled, five-star prospects going up against IMG students who may never play another football game after they graduate.

And, then, during the weekend of Aug. 25, half the Ascenders will face Chandler, a nationally ranked team from Arizona, and half will play Brooksville Nature Coast Tech, a team coming off a second-round loss in the Florida Class 5A playoffs.

“It’s one program with two teams,” said Kevin Wright, the leader of the program and the head coach coach of IMG’s Blue team. “Nobody’s ever done it. Nobody’s ever tried it.”

The Ascenders will feature a pair of teams this fall for the first time in program history, and during the team’s media day Wednesday at IMG Academy, the Ascenders went into detail about how the two teams will be handled.

98Players currently in the IMG Academy football program.

The split will work almost the same as a varsity and junior varsity coexistence, only without any age or grade distinction. The Blue team is scheduled to play a national schedule, and is expected to be loaded with four- and five-star prospects. The White team will play exclusively in Florida, including a game against Saint Stephen’s on Sept. 1. It will be more like a typical high school team with a handful of prospects who find Division I homes. Because it is within the same program, players can be moved between the two teams.

“We’re expanding as a high school, so we’re getting a lot more kids,” said Ken Stills, a former NFL safety and the head coach of the White team. “We’re able now to have two teams and give everybody that same high school experience.”

The seeds for the idea of fielding two varsity teams were planted last fall, when Stills took the reins of a junior varsity team that played mostly local competition. The Ascenders had a quarterback, Bryson Lucero, who has a chance to play at the D-I level, a burly but raw offensive line and the sort of skill position players that would fit in with smaller varsity teams around the state.

But the exposure wasn’t there. Enrolling at IMG is a risk for athletes whose names don’t pop up on recruiting rankings at 247sports.com or Rivals.com. They get the benefits of training at the academy, but gamble on playing time.

We’re expanding as a high school, so we’re getting a lot more kids. ... We’re able now to have two teams and give everybody that same high school experience.

Ken Stills, IMG Academy White head coach

This time last year, Louis Colosimo was gearing up for his senior year and first season with Braden River. The former Ascenders quarterback had been buried on the depth chart. To find playing time, he had to transfer back to a more traditional school. In one season, he went from virtually unknown to Division I, finally settling on Furman, a Football Championship Subdivision school.

“I do think that it provides opportunities for kids like him,” Wright said. “You always want what’s best for the kids.”

While the Ascenders will not finalize their opening-day rosters until later during fall camp, the White team figures to be the landing spot for players of Colosimo’s ilk, such as Lucero. The currently unheralded quarterback is behind Miami commit Arthur Sitkowski and Zack Annexstad, a three-star senior according to 247sports. Lucero will likely be the quarterback for IMG’s new team.

Flanking him will be a horde of mostly unknown prospects, including a fair share of international players such as Japanese slotback Juntoku Koda and Polish linebacker Krzystof Piskorski.

And if any of them shine enough with the White team there will always be the possibility to be shifted to the Blue team. And if not, the Ascenders hope they’ve found a way to get everyone involved.

David Wilson: 941-745-7057, @DBWilson2

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