Friday can't come soon enough for coach Bobby Acosta and his IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.)
Ascenders. The nation's top-ranked high school football team gets its 2020 season underway at 7 p.m. Friday at Venice (Fla.)
in a nationally televised opener on ESPNU.
Like the rest of fall sports teams throughout the land, nothing had been promised to the Ascenders since the coronavirus pandemic hit full force in March. Winter state championships were canceled in most states, and spring sports nationwide shuttered before most even started.
Playing football this fall, just like basic social distance protocols, has been debated, legislated and mandated differently by states, counties and school districts throughout the land, leaving coaches and their programs without much footing, foundation or guidance.
HOW TO WATCH: No. 1 IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) at Venice (Fla.), 7 p.m. Friday, ESPNU
Preparing for a season, an opener, a game is second nature to all programs, but not knowing when that season or game might take place, or who you're prepping for was more than a little tricky.
For IMG Academy, which is really like no other program in the country, it's been a particularly narrow tightrope. The Ascenders draw players from throughout the state and country and land many of the best.
IMG Academy opens its season at 7 p.m. Friday at Venice (Fla.) in a game televised on ESPNU.
File photo by John Jones
Of the top-rated senior players according to 247Sports, IMG claims five of the top 121 nationally and 16 of the top 182 in Florida. Of the top juniors, the Ascenders boast five of the best 171 nationally and eight of the top 50 in the state.
On top of logistic problems and parental concerns being away from home during a pandemic, IMG was also faced with a scheduling quandary. An independent program, the Ascenders have played most of their games the last five seasons — 29 of 47 — against out-of-state opponents.
With 16 of the 50 states, plus Washington D.C., deciding to bypass football in the fall and play in 2021, IMG's scheduling options narrowed. Many states that did commit to football in the fall — including Florida — changed start dates, further complicating plans. So did travel restrictions set by state associations the Ascenders had inked to play.
They had to cancel five games, all against out-of-state teams ranked in the original MaxPreps preseason Top 100
, including three in the Top 25.
Ultimately, the Ascenders secured eight games for the fall — they're still trying to fill two spots — including Friday's opener with Venice. Last year, IMG opened with and beat Venice 46-7.
Remarkably, IMG scheduled six games against out-of-state teams, including two from Canada, and perhaps the most anticipated national contest of the season, an Oct. 10 date at the country's sixth-ranked team Duncanville (Texas)
at Globe Life Field, home of the Texas Rangers in Arlington.
Needless to say, it's been a challenging offseason for first-year IMG coach Acosta, who took over for Kevin Wright on Jan. 28. Wright led the Ascenders to a 44-2 record in five seasons before taking the tight end coaching job at Indiana.
Acosta was the offensive coordinator at College of St. Scholastica last season and had previously coached at Syracuse, Cornell and Bucknell.
He's got a boatload of talent, led by the nation's No. 2 rated pro-style quarterback J.J. McCarthy
, a Michigan commit, the country's No. 3 rated offensive tackle, Alabama-bound J.C. Latham
, and 5-star receiver Jacorey Brooks
, also committed to play for the Crimson Tide. There are Power Five conference-bound players up and down IMG's roster.
It faces a Venice team led by senior quarterback Steffan Johnson
, who split time last season during an 8-5 campaign, but led the Indians in rushing with 984 yards and 13 touchdowns.
should be the squad's top receiving threat, but where Venice likely will excel is on defense. A pair of then sophomore linebackers Desavion Cassaway
(124) and Martin Ramos
(112) led the team in tackles last season.
J.J. McCarthy threw for more than 6,300 yards and 71 touchdown the last two seasons at Nazareth Academy in Illinois before transferring to IMG Academy.
File photo by Dwane Lindsey