St. John’s College (Washington, D.C.) has been around since 1851 and has been playing varsity football since 1889. IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) first began as the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in 1978, but it didn’t become a college prep school until 1999 and its first varsity football season wasn’t until 2013.
Despite those differences, the two have a lot in common these days on the football field. No. 2 IMG plays host to No. 18 St. John’s on Saturday in the Armour Bowl.
Begin with the talented Division-I ready rosters, each of which is dotted with high-profile transfers, including the starting quarterbacks: IMG’s Kellen Mond, a Texas A&M commit, transferred from Reagan (San Antonio) and St. John’s Kasim Hill, a Maryland commit, transferred from Gilman (Baltimore).
“They have a lot of talent,” IMG Coach Kevin Wright said. “They have benefited from the head coach leaving Gilman (Baltimore) and Eastern Christian (Elkton, Md.) closing. They look a lot like us when they walk on the field. They have tremendous size up front and athleticism and speed at every position. When you break down their personnel, they have 12 to 20 Division I athletes. I think they are physical and athletic and coming together as a team. You can see them get better each and every week.”
St. John’s defeated IMG 35-2 in 2014 in the other meeting between the teams, handing the Ascenders their only regular-season loss at home in the first Armour Bowl.
“I wasn’t here (then) and I don’t really care about a (Armour Bowl) trophy,” St. John’s coach Joe Casamento said. “I care about this team we have now and winning. We’re trying to build something here and we’re trying to make it work for these kids. I don’t know if there’s a trophy or not. All I know is we’re 3-0 and trying to get better. If you’re trying to get better, you have to play the best and they’re arguably the best.”
Both schools have sponsorships with Under Armour, the Baltimore-based sports clothing and accessories maker, which is why they’re playing in the Armour Bowl. Under Armour founder Kevin Plank is an alumni of St. John’s and Under Armour and IMG Academy have had a business relationship since the two began putting on combines together in 2009.
The teams each hired veteran coaches two seasons ago. IMG landed Wright, who had won four state titles and had coached at four high schools and as an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Western Kentucky. With a little recruiting help by Plank, St. John’s hired Casamento in January 2015 as an associate head coach and director of the school’s entrepreneurial innovation leadership institute. Eleven months later, he became the Cadets’ head coach. Like Wright, Casamento has a lengthy coaching resume. He won four section titles and the 2004 state title at Christian Brothers Academy (Syracuse, N.Y.).
There’s also plenty of cross pollination. St. John’s athletic director, Brian Griffin, was a vice president at IMG from 2010 to 2014. The Cadets’ top defensive tackle, Cam Spence, played last season at IMG. Cadets defensive tackle Calvin Ashley was briefly on IMG’s campus last winter though he didn’t play a game for the Ascenders.
“A lot of our kids know their kids,” Wright said. “(IMG defensive tackle) Taron Vincent played at Gilman with their quarterback. (IMG running back) Jordan Anthony played at Good Counsel (Olney, Md.) and knows a lot of their players. There are some natural connections between the schools.”
Casamento said his offense has been vanilla while he waits for better execution, but one thing the Cadets haven’t lacked is drive. Last week, St. John’s scored 21 consecutive points after trailing St. Joseph Regional (Montvale, N.J.) 10-0.
“I like the attitude of this team,” Casamento said. “I think we are learning how to play regardless of the ups and downs of a game. We were down 10-0 and we were able to claw our way back. That’s a positive force. I think that’s the major difference between this year and last year (when the team was 7-4).”
IMG is 3-0 with two wins over Super 25 teams. The Ascenders knocked off then-No. 2 Grayson (Loganville, Ga.) 26-7 in their regular-season opener and needed a two-point conversion to defeat then-No. 14 Centennial (Corona, Calif.) 50-49 two weeks ago in the Honor Bowl in Mission Viejo, Calif. This will be the well-traveled Ascenders’ home opener.
“This is the third team that we’ve played that is in the top 20,” Wright said. “Nobody can say we are not playing a difficult schedule. It’s nice to play one at home, I will say that. We’ve played in three different time zones. I don’t care what level you’re at, that’s tough traveling. When we get on the plane, you can just see people shake their heads. I wish I had a nickel for every time that a flight attendant asked us if our players could they keep their knees inside the aisle. Our guys weren’t made for those seats.”
The Cadets, also 3-0, opened their season with a 35-14 defeat of then-No. 16 Central Catholic (Pittsburgh, Pa.) in Wexford, Pa.
“All we know is they’re No. 2 in America, according to some people, so that’s awfully high rarefied air,” Casamento said. “We would like to go down there to see how we measure up and see what we need to do to be like them.”