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IMG escapes St. Joe Prep’s late push in 17-14 victory in the Battle at the Beach

Written by: on Sunday, August 27th, 2023. Follow Joseph Santoliquito on Twitter.


Anthony Sacca (39) & Alex Haskell (95)

OCEAN CITY, NJ — IMG head coach Billy Miller is very familiar with the Sacca family. The South Jersey native who graduated from Delran High School lived close to Tony Sacca, the Delran legend who went on to play for Penn State. Sacca’s mother was Miller’s middle school math teacher.

In some ways, Saturday night brought Miller back to the ghosts of the Sacca football family’s exploits.

Tony’s son, Anthony, St. Joe Prep’s 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior linebacker, caused nightmares the entire night for Miller and IMG before the Ascenders managed to escape with a 17-14 victory in the season-opening game for both teams before over 7,000 at the Battle of the Beach at Ocean City High School.

Sacca’s 10-yard touchdown off a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter turned what seemed to be an easy victory for national powerhouse IMG into a slugfest.

“Anthony is a heck of a player and I was happy to come out here with a win tonight,” said Miller, a 2003 Delran graduate. “Those guys are well-coached. We knew it was going to be a physical game and it was. They did a good job, and it was a competitive game. I hope we can play more games against them in the future.”

Prep struggled offensively the entire game. The Hawks managed one first down in the second half and could not generate any cohesion. It also did not bode well that St. Joe’s Prep was stung by eight penalties for 94 yards. For the game, Prep totaled a highly uncharacteristic 113 yards of total offense—and just 14 yards of offense in the second half.

“What I take from this is the need to give ourselves better opportunities to win,” Hawks’ coach Tim Roken said. “We missed a couple of them. Our defense kept us in the game. Offensively, we were able to move the sticks at times, but there are things we need to fix in all three phases.”

The defense does not seem to need too much tinkering. If the Hawks can play the way it did defensively against IMG on Saturday night, no team in Pennsylvania will score on them this season.

Besides Anthony Sacca, sophomore defensive lineman Alex Haskell was a wrecking machine. In his first varsity start his strip sack created the opportunity for Sacca’s scoop-and-score. Haskell, at 6-5, 250, created problems for the IMG offensive line, and his read on a third down play early in the fourth quarter gave Prep the boost it needed.

“That was the most nervous I’ve ever been in a locker room before a game,” Haskell admitted. “IMG showed me they had a great first step, but they did not play through the whistle. I knew their right guard was their weakest link, and I was going to come under him and attack the quarterback.”

Haskell got the wind knocked out of him on the Sacca touchdown and did not even know he scored until a few minutes later.

“This is a team loss, we didn’t execute well, and I remember I didn’t play well against IMG last year,” Anthony Sacca said. “This is my first game at linebacker. It was different. Less pass responsibility, and I was able to play faster. We needed a third linebacker and I thought I did okay.

“On the touchdown, I didn’t know what happened. I saw two guys collide on the quarterback and the ball came loose. I just reacted and got the football. But overall, we have to turn the page on this and get back to work next week. I have a feeling (IMG) coach Miller knows who I am a little bit now (laughs).”

The teams played to a standstill in the first quarter. Neither team could do anything offensively.

Early in the second quarter, Prep appeared to get a break. In a bold move by Miller, IMG went for it on fourth-and-one at the IMG 23 but was halted by the Hawks inches short.

The first game-changing play occurred right after the Hawks thought they got a break. Prep ran a reverse that was botched when quarterback Samaj Jones tried flicking the ball high back to Kahseim Phillips, who could not handle it and IMG fell on it at its 41.

That set up IMG’s first score.

After playing brilliantly for the first 15 minutes of the game, the Hawks’ defense made one mistake. After closing on IMG running back Jerrick Gibson, IMG quarterback Jayden Bradford pulled off some trickery, swaying the Prep defense left in Gibson’s direction, while he took off right untouched 51 yards for the first score of the game with 9:07 left in the half.

IMG’s Patrick Kane thumped a 21-yard field goal to conclude the half, giving IMG a 10-0 lead.

The Prep’s offense first-half offensive woes were a precursor for what was to come. The Hawks turned the ball over twice, produced 99 yards of total offense, and averaged 3.4 yards a play.

Prep’s defense, meanwhile, was suffocating the first 24 minutes. Hawks’ defensive coordinator Shawn Stratz dialed up great rush packages that had IMG confused throughout much of the half. The Hawks kept IMG to 149 yards of total offense, though held IMG to 74 yards rushing—most of which came on the Bradford breakdown.

The other significant IMG play came on a 32-yard completion in the last minute of the half, setting up Kane’s field goal.

Prep’s biggest impact came from the defensive line of Haskell, Max Roy, Sean McNulty, and Ivan Bailey-Greene, its linebackers Nick McGlynn, Cameron Smith and Sacca, and cornerback Omillio Agard.

They were all over the field.

On IMG’s first possession of the second half, Bradford found Donovan Olugbode for a 45-yard touchdown pass with 9:56 left in the third quarter.

What changed everything for Prep came from nowhere. Prep junior receiver Rameir Hardy gave the Hawks some hope. On the last play of the third quarter, senior Erik Sanchez came slicing through to block an Ascenders’ punt, and Hardy was there to pick up the loose ball at the 32 for Prep’s first score of the game.

And just when it seemed the Ascenders would bounce back, Prep once again came up with a huge play, on Haskell’s strip sack and Sacca’s 10-yard score with 10:39 to play. The seemingly dead Hawks pulled to within 17-14.

With 7:14 remaining, Prep could not move the ball again. IMG, especially defensive tackle David Stone, clamped down on the Hawks and stopped them with 3:39 to play at the Prep 45. From there, the Ascenders ran out the clock, with the help of a late defensive holding call in the end zone.

“We’re going to be okay,” Sacca said. “You learn from this and move on.”

St. Joe’s Prep will learn, and IMG will be happy to escape moving forward.

Scoring Summary

St. Joseph’s Prep (0-1) 0 0 7 7-14

IMG Academy (1-0) 0 10 7 0-17

2nd Quarter

IMG – Jayden Bradford 51 run (Patrick Kane kick), 9:07

IMG – Kane 21 FG, :00

3rd Quarter

IMG – Donovan Olugbode 45 pass from Bradford (Kane kick), 9:56

SJP – Rameir Hardy 32 blocked punt return (Skyler Sholder kick), :00

4th Quarter

SJP – Anthony Sacca 10 fumble return (Sholder kick), 10:39

Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter who has been covering high school football since 1992 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter @JSantoliquito. Follow on Twitter @EPAFootball.

Follow on Twitter @EPAFootball

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