MANATEE -- With so much attention focused on all the prized recruits in IMG Academy's senior class, it was a junior who made all the difference for the Ascenders (4-1) on Friday.
Facing St. Peter's (Jersey City, N.J.) Prep, the 29th-ranked team in the nation according to MaxPreps, IMG cornerback Saivion Smith, who has several Division I offers, made two momentum-shifting plays in the Ascenders' 36-20 victory.
"He shuts down half the side of the field," IMG head coach Chris Weinke said.
First, Smith knocked Marauders quarterback Brandon Wimbush, a Penn State commit, to the ground on a pivotal fourth-and-goal during a long third-quarter drive.
Wimbush, who had terrorized IMG's defense to that point, was stopped after catching a pass on a trick play and appearing headed safely to pay dirt.
But Smith, the lone defender on the outside who could stop the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder, drove Wimbush to the ground and forced him to leave the game briefly.
On IMG's subsequent drive, the Ascenders padded their 19-14 lead when Tony Jones rumbled in for his second straight touchdown. Jones gave IMG its first lead of the second half with a 32-yard run down the right sideline, where he dragged a defender across the goal line.
The former St. Petersburg Catholic star tailback's 27-yard run on the first fourth-quarter play armed the Ascenders with a 26-14 lead.
But that lead wasn't safe yet.
And Smith wasn't done, either.
Smith, who transferred in the summer from St. Pete Lakewood, delivered his second key play on St. Peter's next possession.
With the Marauders driving into IMG territory, Wimbush connected with Anthony Sabia for a 15-yard pass.
That's when Smith came from behind to strip the ball, collect it and return it 34 yards into St. Peter's territory.
The result of that play was a Jackson Dick 37-yard field goal that made it 29-14 with 4:14 remaining.
IMG tacked on a 98-yard interception return from Bryce Beard -- the program's longest touchdown play in history -- with 2:01 remaining to account for its final tally.
"The interception late in the game was huge," Weinke said.
St. Peter's other top recruit, Minkah Fitzpatrick, a consensus five-star playmaker who is committed to Alabama, racked up 139 receiving yards on five catches but was limited to 18 rushing yards by the Ascenders' stout run defense.
The win marked the fourth straight for IMG, the first defeat for St. Peter's and took three hours to complete after a 1½-hour lightning delay.