FORT MYERS, Fla. – At one end of the first base dugout at Terry Park’s George Brett Field, IMG Academy baseball program head coach Jason Elias taped up a sheet of paper with the following message:
“Win an AB”
“Win an Inning”
“Win the Game”
“Attitude & Effort”
They are words Elias expects his players to live by, especially this weekend when they hope to challenge for the championship at the Perfect Game WWBA Florida Qualifier and earn an automatic paid invitation to the WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., late next month.
“My expectation is that these guys come out and they play hard and they do things the right way on the field and off the field,” Elias said before his team’s tournament opener against Bucky Dent Academy Red late Friday afternoon at Terry Park. “Naturally, I’d like to walk out of here as the Florida champion, absolutely, but we take it a game at a time and continually try to develop players. That’s the emphasis of IMG.”
The IMG Academy baseball program is located in Bradenton, Fla., and features a private school where students work toward their high school degrees while also trying to develop into elite athletes. Students come from all over the country – there are players from Iowa, Arizona and California on IMG’s roster here – and even from other countries (Mexico and Venezuela are represented here).
“The kids, they come to IMG from all over the world and it’s a boarding situation. Our emphasis is athletics along with school,” Elias said. “In some ways it (could be compared to) a military school situation but our kids play sports.”
And it’s not just baseball. The IMG Academy offers football, basketball, tennis, golf, soccer and lacrosse. Elias explained students typically come in for classes from 8 a.m. until noon, and in the afternoon they pursue the sport of their choosing.
“In baseball, they have an hour of speed and strength training or it could be mental conditioning,” Elias explained. “Then they have electives they can take, such as leadership and mental toughness or even ACT prep – things of that nature.”
The IMG Academy baseball program website boasts of 19 alumni who were first round MLB draft picks, including Ben Sheets, Vernon Wells, Gary Sheffield and Nomar Garciaparra. Many, many more IMG grads go on to play college baseball.
Max Foody, a senior LHP/OF/1B from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., who took part in Perfect Game National Showcase here in Fort Myers in June, has committed to Florida State. Shortstop and right-hander Cameron Varga from Bradenton has committed to Florida and SS/RHP Colin Brown from Sonoma, Calif., recently committed to Holy Cross.
Alfredo Escalera, a MIF/OF/3B from Bradenton, recently re-opened his recruiting after he de-committed from FSU. Another roster spot is taken up by a player in the class of 2013 who is yet to make a college commitment but certainly has a recognizable name – Manny Ramirez Jr. from Plantation, Fla.
“Our emphasis from a baseball standpoint is we want to help each and every student achieve their potential no matter what that is,” Elias said. “That could mean that maybe they could be drafted one day as a professional athlete, or maybe they end up being a pretty darn good high school player and then they go on and do other things with their life.
“The premise of the school is about life preparation, so I like to say that I’m teaching these guys about life through the game of baseball.”
This particular group didn’t play together all summer like a lot of the other teams here this weekend and have been together for about three weeks. Only about half of the roster played for IMG’s school team in the spring, playing a Florida High School Athletic Association schedule while also traveling to a lot of tournaments all across the country.
Elias said all the players come into the academy with “dreams of playing at the next level” and he considers it his job to get the players in front of the professional scouts and college coaches and recruiters at events such as though offered by Perfect Game.
The IMG Academy baseball program first entered a team at the WWBA Florida Qualifier in the fall of 2008, and this marks the first time it’s returned to the tournament. An IMG Academy team has never played in the WWBA World Championship, but has participated in the WWBA Underclass World Championship.
The players on the roster have all been involved in numerous Perfect Game events, either with summer travel ball teams or on their own at various showcases.
“I know our boys are very tied in with the Perfect Game circuit,” Elias said. “They’ve all be involved in one way or another.”
The goal this weekend is to win the Florida Qualifier and receive the automatic paid invitation to the WWBA World Championship. It is the same goal shared by all 52 teams that will fill various venues around town over the next three days.
Recent history provides an enticing glimpse of the awards that championship can reap. Chet Lemon’s Juice won last year’s Florida Qualifier and then went on to be crowned co-champs at the 2010 WWBA World Championship.
“It’s going to be a grind down here and I know we’d have to get through seven games” to win the championship, Elias said. “If we’re able to do that successfully we’re definitely looking forward to getting the boys out there in Jupiter.”