High School | Rankings | 2/1/2019

Talent-rich IMG opens at No. 2

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Rece Hinds (Meghan Mitchell)

2019 Perfect Game High School Preview Index

No. 2 IMG Academy Ascenders (Bradenton, Fla.)

State Association/League: Member of Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) but not allowed to compete in the postseason.
Head Coach: Kason Gabbard (1st year as head coach)
2018 Results: 18-7 overall; champion of 2018 Coach Bob Invitational in Arizona.

Key Departures: RHP Levi Kelly (Arizona Diamondbacks); SS Blaze Alexander (Arizona Diamondbacks); C Andrew Stanley (Arkansas); SS Bryce Reagan (Texas); RHP Matthew Wyatt Beddow (Wake Forest).

Key Returners: Sr. RHP Kendall Williams (Vanderbilt); Sr. RHP Jimmy Starnes (West Virginia); Sr. CF Kyle Westfall; Sr. 1B William Bartlett (Arizona); Sr. C Tucker Mitchell (Florida Atlantic); Sr. LHP Jack Stroud (Florida Atlantic); Jr. INF Jack O'Dowd (Vanderbilt); Jr. OF/LHP Billy Underwood (Coastal Carolina).

Key Newcomers: Sr. RHP Brennan Malone (North Carolina); Sr. SS Rece Hinds (Louisiana State); Sr. 3B Joshua Rivera; Sr. C Jax Cash (South Carolina).

Notable Matchups: March 1 at Archbishop McCarthy; March 7-9 vs. PG High School Showdown at Hoover, Ala.; March 26-29 vs. IMG National Classic; April 3-6 vs. USA Baseball National High School Invitational at Cary, N.C.; April 27 at Tampa Jesuit.


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can never have too many close friends, too many pairs of comfortable shoes or too many Perfect Game All-Americans on his roster. Lacking specifics about where IMG Academy head coach Kason Gabbard stands in regard to friendships or footwear, we do know he’s been dealt a special three-of-a-kind when it comes to PGAAs.

Senior right-hander Brennan Malone and senior shortstop Rece Hinds, both participants in the 2018 PG All-American Classic, are now IMG Academy Ascenders, joining fellow 2018 PGAA right-hander Kendall Williams on the roster. Malone comes in at No. 4, Hinds No. 8 and Williams No. 22 in PG’s class of 2019 national prospect rankings.

Those three are part of a top prospect-laden roster that includes 10 seniors who have signed letters of intent with NCAA Division-I schools and two juniors who have committed to D-I programs. It is because of that concentration of talent that IMG Academy debuts today as the No. 2-ranked team in the 2019 PG High School Preseason National Top 50 Rankings.

This is the first year Gabbard will serve as head coach of IMG’s top varsity team although this is his fourth year at the academy; he knows he’s blessed with one of the top collections of elite prep prospects in the country.

“On paper, we have really high potential,” Gabbard told PG during a recent telephone conversation. “Until we start putting the chemistry together and building relationships with each other as a group, our potential to play at the level everyone expects us to play is where it’s going to be at. Other than that, we’ve got a great bunch of kids and everything seems to be fitting into place right now.”

Outfielder Kyle Westfall (No. 132) and first baseman William Bartlett (No. 184) are among the top seniors back for the Avengers this spring, while third baseman Joshua Rivera (No. 41) and catcher Jax Cash (No. 173) join Malone and Hinds as senior newcomers. Infielder Jack O'Dowd (No. 93) and outfielder/left-hander Billy Underwood (top-500) are among the top juniors (class of 2020).

The baseball program at IMG Academy is not anything like a typical high school program. The players attend classes in the morning and then the rest of the day is devoted to baseball activities including training, workouts, practices and games.

Players come and go at IMG with each new season and Gabbard said the biggest challenge the coaching staff faces is getting them to buy into what the coaches are teaching. He wants them to keep it loose and have fun with the game while continuing to develop and prepare themselves to play at the collegiate or professional level in the next year or two.

“We have a lot of new guys but we also have a lot of returning guys who have been in the program that know how this program is run,” he said. “Everybody’s getting adjusted well – we’ve had a few ups and downs – and everybody’s buying in; it’ll be interesting to see how everything works out.”

There always seems to be an annual adjustment period for IMG's new kids on the block as they get acclimated to a schedule unlike any other they’ve ever had. But, according to Gabbard, once they do get adjusted the experience can also be a positive one unlike any other they’ve ever had.

“This place is pretty amazing with what it has to offer, and not just the baseball side of things,” he said. “It’s just very beneficial for their progression and their development with the strengthening and things on the mental side. … There’s all kinds of things they can do here, they just have to take advantage of it.”

IMG Academy is a member of the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) but is not eligible to compete for FHSAA state championships. The Ascenders can go all-out for championships at the various tournaments they play in during their season, of course, and they can compete for a PGHS national championship as their No. 2 preseason ranking attests.

“The biggest thing we try to get through to these kids is to play for their teammates,” Gabbard said. “We’ve got four or five potential (MLB) draft picks this year, and we’re trying to get those other guys that are on the edge at the same level as those guys and picking each other up.

“When we go play at these tournaments, that brings a lot of excitement to these guys and we prepare these guys and let them know that we’re playing for something,” he continued. “That’s motivation for these guys.”

The Ascenders will play a challenging schedule this spring. They’ll once again take part in the PG High School Showdown March 7-9 (to be held this year in Hoover, Ala.) and will host their own IMG National Classic March 26-29. They’ll then head north to Cary, N.C., to enjoy their first appearance at the USA Baseball National High School Invitational (NHSI) April 3-6.

The program has always traveled to major tournaments, visiting such faraway places as California and Arizona in an effort to broaden its players horizons. But the tournament in Cary, which features 16 of the top high school teams from across the country, promises to be special; PGHS No. 4- and No. 5-ranked Orange Lutheran (Calif.) and Blessed Trinity Catholic (Ga.), respectively, are in the field.

“We feel fortunate that we have the opportunity to play in it this year,” Gabbard said. “Any new tournament that we can enter where people can compare us to some of these other teams is a great opportunity for these guys, and it gives us something to look forward to and play for.”

Gabbard was a left-handed pitcher who the Red Sox selected in the 29th round of 2000 MLB June Amateur Draft right out of Royal Palm Beach (Fla.) High School; he then went to Indian River Community College (Fla.) as a draft-and-follow. He ended up pitching parts of three seasons (2006-08) in the big leagues for the Red Sox and Rangers.

His entire professional career, including the minor leagues, spanned 10 years and he feels like he can share his experiences with the young IMG players and they can learn from it.

“We’re trying to get them prepared for the next level, just mentally and physically,” Gabbard said. “I think if they can buy into that part and learn the game that way it makes it a lot easier for us and also prepares them for the next level.”

IMG Academy won 18 of 25 games last season – it claimed the championship at the Coach Bob Invitational in Phoenix in March – and Gabbard feels like this group has the potential to do a lot more winning this season.

“The chemistry is great, and like I said I think we’ve got a great bunch of guys,” he concluded. “The guys that have been in the program are kind of like little feeders to the new guys and the guys that we’ve brought in have adjusted well. It’s going to be fun and interesting to watch this year.”

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