In January 2020, James Wood was already an elite high school baseball player, one who was chasing his dreams in the Washington D.C. suburb of Olney, Md.
It was the middle of his junior year and after in-depth conversations with his parents, Kenny and Paula Wood, James made the decision to enroll at the prestigious IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., a place where he felt his sky-high potential could best be refined and ultimately reached.
“Honestly, I was a little bit nervous originally, coming down here and not really knowing anybody,” Wood told Perfect Game during a telephone conversation in November. “But IMG really did a good job of making me feel welcome and just making the transition really smooth and easy.”
The transition was, in fact, seamless and Wood was able to help the Ascenders to an 8-2 record before the 2020 season was brought to an abrupt halt by the COVID-19 pandemic (they were 3-1 at the ’20 PG High School Showdown in early March).
And while there is no hope of recapturing any of the dreams that vanished during the lost season of 2020, the players and coaches at IMG Academy have every reason to look forward to the 2021 campaign with a glowing sense of optimism.
Armed with a roster that boasts 18 highly-regarded national prospects from the prep classes of 2021, ’22 and ’23, the IMGA Ascenders will kick-off their regular season in two weeks as the No. 1 team in the 2021 PG High School National Preseason Top 50 Rankings.
It’s been a challenging and often-times tragic last 10 months for everyone, and high school baseball programs weren’t immune to those challenges. In fact, they continue to confront them to this day.
The IMGA program enjoys a unique environment in terms of being able to successfully navigate itself through the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis in that its students are able to operate in what is essentially their own “bubble” atmosphere on the Bradenton campus.
The baseball players were at home during the summer months, of course, but returned in August and were able to participate in a fall season while following all the necessary protocols. The disruptions, to date, anyway, have been minimal.
“We did everything in-house – we didn’t travel anywhere – so we really got to work with the guys a lot,” IMG Head Coach Kason Gabbard told PG last week while also noting that the student-athletes went home again for a holiday break before returning in mid-January. “It’s been tough but the kids have been adjusting well. I just hope that this kind of clears up so we can play and not get any games cancelled.
“As far as we know everything is still on,” he added. “I just confirmed all of our games with all the other coaches and they’ve all said, ‘We’re good to go.’ So hopefully everything holds on and we’ll go from there.”
The Ascenders are scheduled to begin the 2021 campaign with “preseason” games against traditionally strong Florida programs in No. 3 Calvary Christian Academy and No. 19 American Heritage, with the games played in Vero Beach.
They’ll kick off the regular season with home games against local schools on Feb. 16, 18 and 20 and then it’s off to the races. Next in line are three games Feb. 25-27 against traditional Texas powers South Lake Carroll, Flower Mound and Marcus High Schools, with the games scheduled to be played at Globe Life Field, the new home of the Texas Rangers in Arlington. The 11-team event is called the Globe Life Field High School Baseball Showcase; IMGA will be the only non-Texas school in attendance.
After returning from Texas, the Ascenders will have only about five days to catch their collective breath before traveling up to Hoover, Ala., for their annual rendezvous with 31 other elite teams at the PG High School Showdown.
“We try to make it competitive every year,” Gabbard said of the schedule. “A lot of teams reach out to us trying to play and we try to play different teams every year, and some of the same good ones that are always competitive against us.”
As is almost always the case, the 2021 IMG 18-man roster features an abundance of talent and depth at every position on the field. But what might set this one apart is that there is also some experience from the standpoint that there are four players back this season who suited-up for the Ascenders during last year’s abbreviated campaign.
Heading that foursome is the senior outfielder James Wood, a PG All-American and Mississippi State signee who PG ranks as the No. 8 overall prospect from the national class of 2021.
The others are senior catcher Sam Hunt (No. 312, Vanderbilt) from Minneapolis; senior middle-infielder Drake Varnado (No. 147, Arkansas) from Port Neches, Texas, and sophomore shortstop Stone Russell (No. 55, Florida) out of Bradenton; Russell could potentially play four seasons at IMGA if he chooses to.
Gabbard, a left-hander who pitched three seasons (2006-08) in the big leagues with the Red Sox and Rangers, arrived at IMG in 2015 and the staff has been trying to build a core group of younger players each year who will stay with the program for more than one season.
That way, the thinking goes, the Ascenders will resemble more closely a traditional high school team where the freshmen and sophomores can learn the ins-and-outs of everyday life at IMG Academy from the juniors and seniors who are well-schooled in the process.
“It’s a tough schedule with their workouts and for guys coming in here not knowing really what to expect, those core group of guys do a great job helping the new guys adjust,” Gabbard said. “I think we’re going to have seven returnees next year...so that’s what we’re trying to do, get some better, younger talent in here with guys that we’ve built-up through the system.”
The cast of IMG’s first-year players this season really need no introduction to the Perfect Game community. Wood is joined on the roster by fellow 2020 PG All-Americans in senior left-handers Mason Albright (No. 31, Virginia Tech) from Thurmont, Md., and Drew Gray (No. 36, Arkansas) out of Swansea, Ill., and senior corner infielder Tommy White (No. 18, N.C. State) from nearby St. Pete Beach.
White, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound right-handed hitting slugger who attended Calvary Christian HS in Clearwater before enrolling at IMG Academy for the 2020-21 school year, is here for many of the same reasons Wood came on board.
“I just wanted to be able to work-out every single day and get training every day,” he told PG in August. “Get bigger and stronger and faster so I can be ready for the (MLB) draft, hopefully.”
Other highly-regarded seniors (2021s) rostered with the Ascenders include right-hander Benjamin Fiedler (No. 372) and the lefty Evan Clark (t-1000) from the pitching staff.
Seniors Jackson Werth (t-500, Belmont U.) and Joseph Slattery (t-1000, Fla. Atlantic) join Varnado and White on the infield while senior Max Galvin (t-500, Miami-Dade) joins Wood in the outfield.
An over-the-top talented junior class (2022s) is led by none other than outfielder Elijah Green, a Miami commit PG ranks as the No. 1 overall prospect in the country in his class.
And he doesn’t stand alone amongst the class of 2022 elite. There is also left-hander Jackson Ferris (No. 15, Ole Miss); first baseman/utility Blaydon Plain (No. 83, Florida); right-hander/third baseman Davion Hickson (No. 93, Florida St.) and outfielder/utility Nate Selmont (t-500). The sophomore class includes the shortstop Russell and top catcher Brady Neal (No. 36, LSU).
“Our team is obviously built around high-quality players, and that’s what we want,” Gabbard said. “This year we’ve got a great group of guys with tons of different personalities and they’re having fun; that’s what it’s all about. We kind of run this team like a college or a professional team and we kind of have to take a step back every now and then and just realize that they’re high school kids.
“But that’s the expectations we have of them. We want to challenge them and I think they want that, as well, just to get them ready for the next level.”
Having reached the highest level of the game himself, Gabbard feels comfortable in conveying a message to these high school players pertaining to what is required to reach that highest level:
They need to get in the weight room because putting in the extra work there will pay off long-term. Being high school students, their first priority is to take care of the academic side of the equation before they even step out on the field. And they need to challenge themselves and compete hard every day.
It’s also important that they learn to play for their teammates instead of playing for themselves. Unselfishness is a key ingredient when it comes to building trust and camaraderie within a clubhouse.
“That’s kind of the philosophy we try to teach these kids every year,” Gabbard said. “It’s not all about you. There are scouts at every single one of our games and the sophomores and juniors are getting looked at, as well. It sets up a bright future for them and if everything clicks right then everything should work out.”
IMG Academy is not eligible to compete for a Florida State High School Association-sanctioned state championship so the Ascenders find their motivation elsewhere. That’s why they readily accept invitations to large events like the PG High School Showdown with teams from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, where they’re able to compartmentalize the experience and treat it as their version of a championship playoff.
Having been awarded the No. 1 ranking in the PG High School Preseason Top-50, IMG is now officially in the running for a PGHS National Championship to be determined by the PG scouting staff based on on-field results.
“When we pick our initial team, that’s in our opening speech,” Gabbard said. “It’s where our expectations are and how they carry themselves (as representatives of) IMG; they’re the face of this academy. They need to be leaders on and off the field to our younger players and we constantly remind of them of where they are and what we’re trying to do.
“We take those tournaments as our playoffs and as something to play for,” he added. “We just try to grind every game.”
And they’ll grind with a team-first mentality shared by top prospects who have been brought together from their homes in Maryland and North Carolina, Illinois and Minnesota, Texas and Florida, and points in between. A lot of these IMG players became friends while playing on the PG tournament and showcase circuits over the years, so it’s not like they’re total strangers, anyway.
“Woody (James Wood) helped us bring in a couple of these guys for this year and that helps out big time with getting them adjusted. The kids help out a lot recruiting other kids for us while trying to get the best fit that we can. …
“It’s pretty exciting. We’ve been scrimmaging against ourselves down here and it’s actually good to see our pitchers throw and our team come together and work out the kinks.”