Photo courtesy of Dave’s Joint.
By David Cordova
In this day and age, the prep school scene is where it’s at for most youths. Many go the prep route and some are successful. And it’s even better when you can win a national championship with that school.
Meet IMG Academy, a private boarding school that specializes in all athletics and also academics, which is based in Bradenton, Florida. The school has been in existence since 1978, when it was known as the Nick Bolletierri Tennis Academy, before International Marketing Group, which the school is currently named after, purchased it in 1987.
Today, and is a breeding ground for talents from each sport, such as tennis, golf, baseball, football, lacrosse, soccer, cross country, and of course, basketball.
In regards to the basketball program, it was founded in 2001, and has been successful ever since, sending countless players into the NBA, which include Trevon Duval (Houston Rockets), Dwayne Bacon (Charlotte Hornets) and Anfernee Simons (Portland Trail Blazers).
But this past weekend, for the first time in history, the program did something it had never done before, win a national championship. The Ascenders, the team’s nickname, completed a 31-1 season, held down the No. 1 national ranking in USA Today and would win the prestigious GEICO Nationals championship in New York City.
This season, the Ascenders played in a large assortment of events such as the City of Palms Classic, ARS National Showcase, Flyin to the Hoop and the Hoophall Classic to name a few. Their lone loss of the season happened on December 20that the City of Palms Classic to Mountain Brook of Alabama.
But through it all, they still managed to get into the GEICO National High School Tournament, in search of the goal of winning a national championship.
“Well, we were on spring break, so we were able to get in two-a-days, and then we started school on Monday, but for us, basically, we get up in the morning, we watch film, and we practice from 10 to 11:45 AM, guys get iced, then they go to school and then after school, most of the guys are back in the gym and get shots up,” said head coach Sean McAloon, who is in his second year at IMG.
“It’s great, it’s basketball 365 days a year,” said IMG director Brian Nash, “We love it and this is the culmination of a lot of hard work and we take a lot of pride in our academy and this group right here, they have a lot of people back in Florida right now that are really proud of them and their accomplishments and to win a national championship is incredible.”
This year’s team had a good group of players, starts with three seniors that were also McDonald’s All-Americans in 6-foot-10 forward and North Carolina signee Armando Bacot, Jr., 6-foot-10 forward and Villanova signee, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, and also 6-foot-6 swingman Josh Green, who is signed to Arizona. Then there is also the junior backcourt of 6-foot-3 shooting guard Jaden Springer and 6-foot-1 point guard Noah Farrakhan, which rounds out the starting five. Other key contributors include 6-foot-8 senior forward Mikael Brown-Jones and 6-foot-6 freshman guard Jarace Walker.
In the quarterfinals on Thursday afternoon, the Ascenders were ahead for most of the game, and easily dispatched Sunrise Christian Academy of Kansas, 65-50, as IMG held the Buffaloes to 31.5% shooting from three-point range and 45% from the field, which was a credit to the Ascenders defense.
The semifinal game on Friday afternoon against Montverde Academy, which was then ranked ahead of them in the USA Today national poll before this week (IMG was No. 4, Montverde was No. 3), would prove to be the ultimate test for the two powerhouse teams in the state of Florida.
Throughout the game, it would be a neck-and-neck battle from start to finish, as IMG struggled to shut down Montverde senior shooting guard Harlond Beverly and junior point guard Cade Cunningham, who threatened them with their ability to shoot from long range and also when getting to the basket.
Although the Eagles dominated on the boards, the Ascenders fought their way back in the second half, as they got very close. But towards the end of the game, Robinson-Earl made the play that would seal the fate of the Eagles, as he went downcourt and threw down a nasty two-handed dunk that would put them up, 74-73. Beverly tried to get a shot off in the waning seconds, but it would not go in, as the Ascenders would go on to the championship game.
On Saturday afternoon, it was time to crown a champion. 32 minutes away from winning a title, the only thing standing in the way of IMG would be La Lumiere, the No. 1 team in the nation, which was led by Isaiah Stewart, another McDonald’s All-American forward, who would be bound for Washington, Gerald Drumgoole, a Pittsburgh signee, and Wendell Green, a diminutive junior point guard that put out the maximum effort every time he stepped on the floor.
Ahead early in the first half, IMG maintained a slim, close lead going into halftime, 31-26. But in the second half, the Ascenders continued their attack, holding the Lakers to a 4-for-23 shooting performance and making crucial shots, including a three-pointer by Walker, that would keep them ahead for the rest of the game, and seal the deal, as they would win by an 11-point margin, 66-55, and would earn them the Ascenders their first national championship in school history.
When asked about how it felt to be national champions, Green responded, “You know, we’ve been waiting on this moment for two years now. Coach Mac came in and [the run] started last year. You know, it was a good startoff and we’ve always wanted to win a national championship. All credit goes to Coach Mac, not many coaches come to a superior high school in their second year and win a national championship, let alone just in general, so, a lot of love for Coach Mac, he’s a great coach and we’ll love him forever.”
On the subject of bringing in the first-ever national championship in history to the school, Robinson-Earl replied, “It’s amazing, only how superior the school is in golf, football, tennis, all of the sports, we’re the first team to win some sort of national championship and be the best in the country to do it, so it’s awesome.”
Bacot added: “I would say, it’s amazing, too, being that IMG is religiously a football school, and I feel like, as soon as Coach Mac came in, he changed the culture, I feel like right now, basketball, we topped everything.”
When asked what they will remember about this season, Green replied, “Everything, I mean, every single moment, every single part of the way, you know, we had our ups and downs, but I think the craziest part is, we see each other as family now, so I’ll always remember every single part of this, it’s a season to remember, we won a national championship, so everything about this won’t really be forgotten.”
Coach McAloon added, “We’ve always felt that we were the fastest team out there, from one through five, I don’t know anybody that can keep up with Noah and Jeremiah, in their positions, so if we can rebound, then we’d be good, so that was the main key, honestly, it was rebounding.”
When asked how he felt about having three McDonald’s All-Americans on his roster, McAloon also replied jokingly, “According to everybody else, we just kind of roll the balls out, so, it’s easy. It’s a blessing, it does make it easier, there’s no question about that, I’m not going to sit here and say it doesn’t, but you know, they’re not only really good players, but they’re also really good kids, they come from really good families, and that’s kind of the most important thing. They’re good men, and everybody sees the basketball, but you guys don’t see the other things that we see, so I think that’s what I’ll remember most about them outside of the plays on the court.”
When asked about more on this year’s team, Nash, who is in his third year as director at the school, replied, “Yeah, [there’s] a lot of talent on that team, a lot of heart, and probably what’s more important and the thing that we’re worried about is that they’re great kids. They have a lot of character, they handled themselves well the whole year, so those are the kids that you want to be successful and want to see win.”
On where this year’s squad ranks amongst all of the teams in the school since 2001, Nash added: “Hey, this is the first national championship, so these guys are the best. There are a lot of players that came before and put in their blood, sweat and tears, and these guys can make everybody proud, all of our alums, but these guys are the first national champs [from this school], so I’d say this group.”
After a long, grueling season, there’s no time to rest. The seniors will be getting ready for graduation and are playing in more all-star events and working on their games and their bodies before they head off to summer sessions in the month of June. The underclassmen will be getting ready for the AAU/sneaker circuit, ready to perform in front of various college coaches that will require their services and whom they may one day sign their letters of intent to attend someday.
But one thing is certain, the 2018-19 season was a great one for IMG Academy, and it will be one to remember for many, many more years to come.