This Florida Team Could Be The Best Ever. Here's Why.

* Issam Asinga after finishing the 300m at the Millrose Games on Feb. 11

Photo Credit: Derrick Dingle/NY MileSplit

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By Cory Mull - MileSplit 

The story of Montverde Academy track and field begins with Gerald Phiri. It almost ended with culinary school. 

In 2021, that's where Phiri found himself, at a crossroads, thinking about a new career path. 

The Zambian-born athlete, just 32 years old at the time, had lived all over the world, had won Youth track and field championships, competed for Texas A&M, represented his nation at two Olympics, ran professionally and now was coaching track and field. 

His wife, Khrystal, the athletic director at Montverde Academy, had asked him in 2018 to fill in as a place-holder coach, until the program found someone long-term. 

But three years in, he was still there. Why? What was pulling him back? His $5,000-a-year stipend certainly wasn't. A part of him wanted to learn how to manage luxury restaurants. 

Then, over a three-month stretch in 2021, a series of events started to happen. Weston Baptiste, the school's top athlete, started to become a star. He ran 46.63 for 400 meters. Then he dropped a 20.90w in the 200m. Then came a 10.6w in the 100m. Baptiste won a state title. He signed with Georgia Tech. 

For the first time, Phiri had taken an athlete to a truly elite level. 

"That's where it started," Phiri said. 

And perhaps the rest, as they say, was history. 

Building Blocks

The Puzzle -- How The Pieces Formed

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The best teams in high school track and field history all feature one thing: Stars.

But the truly transcendent programs?

They have legitimate studs, the kinds of athletes who not only sign to collegiate programs but go on to earn All-American honors and NCAA titles, or even turn professional. The best teams usually have more than one. 

Which brings us to Montverde Academy. Right now, the Eagles' indoor program consists of the nation's best sprinters, hurdlers, distance runners and jumpers. There are 31 athletes in all, including the likes of Micayah Holland, Adaejah Hodge, Micah Larry, Issam Asinga, Michelle Smith, Riley Novack, Zyaire Nuriddin, Kai Graves-Blanks and Kyle Johnson

Those are nine of the top track and field athletes in the United States. On one program

"We're demanded to be champions," Montverde senior Micah Larry said. "We're demanded to act like champions. When I look over at Kai (Graves-Blanks) or Issam (Asinga), I know those two are champions. They are two of the best. It demands me to be better. It creates an atmosphere of greatness that it's hard to run away from."

Prior to 2021, the private, college preparatory school just outside Orlando, Florida, was known more for its legendary basketball team, one that developed future NBA stars like RJ Barrett, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and D'Angelo Russell over the last decade.  

Then last year happened.

Holland, Larry and Nuriddin all transferred to Montverde. Holland was from Virginia, Larry from North Carolina and Nuriddin from Delaware. 

All three had shown various signs of potential. But with Phiri behind the engine, they all began to super-charge. Holland finished the year with the third-fastest wind-legal 100m time of 2022 and the fourth-best 200m effort. Nuriddin clocked the nation's second-fastest 400m. Larry pocketed the country's third-best long jump.  

All three signed with major Power Five NCAA programs -- Holland with Texas, Larry with Georgia and Nuriddin with Tennessee -- over the November signing period. 

The beginning of the new school term in 2022 only raised the stakes. With Hodge, Asinga and Grave-Blanks arriving, the Eagles only strengthened. 

Phiri brought in a couple of full-time coaches, Jean-Carlos Arroyo and Dustin Spanbauer, and a few others helped fill out the ranks in operations, jumps and other events. Arroyo and Spanbauer were previously at IMG Academy.

While Phiri declined to answer what Montverde Academy budgets for full-time salaries of its coaches, he did clarify that the team's operating budget for the indoor and outdoor seasons is a combined $11,000, without help from the booster club. Cross country is given an additional $2,000 per season. 

From the outset, the vision was this: Build out a cohesive coaching staff that could develop athletes in their own way, with patience and expertise. Then, challenge your athletes to be great. 

It didn't take long for Arroyo to get a sense of what the school was trying to accomplish. 

"From the top down, the leadership at Montverde Academy understands the effect sports can have on school as a whole," he said. "Resources become available. Ideas become available. Winning becomes a part of the equation of school and how the school grows ...the mission is different." 

What has followed so far in January and February can only be described as a truly dominant run of form, as the Eagles have overpowered teams across the U.S. with swift and blinding track moments. Asinga, Larry, Nurridin, Holland, Smith and Hodge all have racked up all-time sprint and middle-distance performances, whether at the national or class level. 

"(Just being on this team) it can lead anyone to really good times," Larry said. "Just being in the midst of our teammates."

"We're demanded to be champions," Montverde senior Micah Larry said. "We're demanded to act like champions. When I look over at Kai (Graves-Blanks) or Issam (Asinga), I know those two are champions. They are two of the best. It demands me to be better. It creates an atmosphere of greatness that it's hard to run away from."

Internal Dynamics 

Playing By The Rules

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So the pivotal questions then, right? How did Montverde Academy become this good? And what will their success mean for the rest of Florida track and field?

It's a reasonable one. It's the kind of question anyone would ask, especially those who raise their eyebrows at the insane amount of talent on campus. After all, never in the history of this sport has one high school team -- one that competes inside the state's governing sports association -- been this prolific, with so many superstars. 

Tuition at Montverde Academy is $55,980 dollars, its endowment a reported size of $10 million. According to another report, the school brought in approximately $30 million in revenue in 2021. But Phiri maintains that no athlete is on an athletic scholarship at the school. 

While need-based financial aid is available, he said all athletes' families are paying tuition of some kind. The division of parochial powers and public programs is a divisive topic in high school sports, with a selection of state associations having re-classified competition to better balance the playing field. Associations in Maryland and New Jersey, for example, have broken out those classifications into private vs. public. 

But Montverde Academy track still competes within the Florida High School Athletic Association. And they're still in Class 2A. 

That isn't the case for all teams. The school's basketball program, which competes nationally, competes outside the FHSAA. The same goes for its baseball or soccer teams.

Phiri says he wants to maintain his team's eligibility. To do that, he says, will mean that his eyes must be locked on the FHSAA rulebook. He's taken the association's Policy 36 course, which dovetails into the areas surrounding recruiting and is an arm to bylaw 6.3.2, which outlines specifics around it. 

"I don't want to leave the state series," he said. 

There are some important distinctions which allow Montverde Academy to stay within that system. The FHSAA maintains that no academic institution with athletic programs under its purview may have a student enrollment with over 50-percent boarding students. With over 1,000 students on campus, Montverde has approximately 16-percent boarders, Phiri said. 

"The biggest stuff we can control is team size," he said. "But if an athlete comes to Montverde and they are good enough, I have to figure out a way that they can be a part of the team." 

That's scary for the rest of the state. A year ago, the Eagles won nine individual state titles across the boys and girls divisions. The boys won a team title by a margin of 24 points; the girls were second by six points. This year, Montverde has the potential to incur damage much larger. 

How about all those athletes we mentioned earlier, the transfers from varying states?  

In some way or another, all of them do have ties to Montverde Academy. Holland originally came to Montverde Academy to play basketball; her cousin is also Justin Gatlin, who was training at the school when she initially enrolled. Asinga had a family member who lived 15 minutes from campus. Hodge's cousin, and Smith's brother train at the school. 

"We're careful to follow all of the policies," Phiri said.

Perhaps that's why all of this works. Phiri is dedicated to the details. 

The Vision

Building The Staff

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Montverde Academy's daily HQ? It's just south of campus, off Highland Avenue, under the sweltering sun. 

You'll find the nation's best athletes, and perhaps some of its best coaches, every day on this red track. Chief among them is Phiri.

Why is he so important to this story? 

It may be because of this: His ability to focus both on the present and to examine the long-term strategy of this team begins to solve a complex puzzle beyond just one or two years. That management-level thinking is likely one reason why Montverde Academy President Kasey Kesselring invested money and resources into building a team much like its basketball, baseball and soccer programs. 

That trust has elevated the Eagles and helped the program sky-rocket into the powerhouse it has become. Kesselring had to believe in the vision. He also had to trust the man. 

"I think (President Kesselring) believed that people would eventually see my ability to develop athletes," said Phiri, who's also a father of two and expectant of No. 3. "He always thought athletes would want to come here because I was here." 

Phiri had also accomplished a fair deal at every level. That also made a difference.

As a youth sprinter, he had won an English national championship at 15 and nearly set an indoor U17 record indoors. Before he was even 18, he ran for senior national teams.

In college, he picked up various All-American honors for Texas A&M, then turned professional, where he would go on to secure personal indoor bests of 6.52 for 60m and 20.80 for 200m and post outdoor marks of 10.03 for 100m and 20.29 for 200m.

He ran at two separate Olympic Games for Zambia. 

Not every professional athlete will become a coach. At the same time, it takes a specific kind of individual to possess the stamina to lead athletes, and to coach high schoolers at that. But from an early stage, Phiri displayed all of these characteristics. He had curiosity and tenacity and selflessness. 

"I've always been fascinated with the sport," he said. 

When he was a professional training out of Florida, one of his coaches tapped him to lead a small group. 

"I think I have a good eye for detail," Phiri said. "I can see some things that perhaps others can't see." 

He eventually moved to Montverde Academy. Over three years, he guided a Montverde Academy team upward, eventually helping Baptiste reach his biggest goals. Then that three-month stretch was the catalyst for Montverde Academy leadership. 

Phiri was offered a full-time job as the Director of Track and Field and Cross Country. It didn't stop there. Montverde eventually morphed from a program with three stipend coaches into one with three full-time salaries. 

At Montverde Academy, the priority had been implemented: To grow you must invest.

Still, Montverde is like any track program. It has hand-me-down equipment.

Pits. Hurdles. Blocks.

But it's unlike others in that it has a professional sprint group that trains on its track. That group's coach, Dennis Mitchell -- with athletes like Twanisha Terry and Sha'Carri Richardson and Kenny Bednarek -- has given Phiri access to software and has allowed him to film and analyze his athlete's mechanics through those means.  

Phiri says he wants to invest in a $20,000 1080 sprint product that can work to build neuromuscular adaptation in athletes. He says he'll have to lean on his Montverde booster club to some day afford it. 

But on the days when technology isn't helping him analyze his team's performances, there are the coaches to lean on. Arroyo, Spanbauer and Co. had success at previous stops before Montverde. 

But here's a funny story, too. Arroyo didn't actually know Phiri before he was hired. 

"I knew of him, I didn't know him," he said. 

So why join a program like this? 

"I needed something new and more importantly someone more like me," Arroyo added, "dedicated to performance." 

This season, Arroyo has been one of Phiri's closest confidantes. A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, he arrived at Montverde Academy on his 18th season of coaching. He still coaches a few professional athletes. Some have even reached the Olympics. 

With Arroyo tinkering with Larry's technique in the long jump, he's become one of the best in the country. So, too, has Nuriddin, Holland, Hodge, Asinga, Smith and Grave-Blanks. 

Larry, the Alabama native and former North Carolina student-athlete, has the No. 2 long jump in the country and the fifth-best 60m. 

"Since coming to Montverde, my only goal is to become the best long jumper there ever was," Larry said. 

Of course, if you were to hop on Phiri's Facebook account, you would also see that Montverde Academy's girls and boys ran the No. 2 4x400 time in Florida history, Hodge was top five in the 60m and 200m, Asinga was No. 1 in the 60m, Alex Georgiev scored a school record pole vault and Graves-Blanks set a school record in the 60mH.  

His team has stars. But what's even greater in his mind, he says, is the development from athletes you can't necessarily see on those weekly headlines, like an athlete who's personal best in the 100m was once 17 seconds and now is 12. 

Photo Credit: MileSplit

Carpe Diem

Execution -- Montverde Chases History

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Just how long will this last? 

In high school sports, you never quite know. Super Teams have been few and far between, but of the four programs that have been among the most dominant over the last 10 years -- the DeSoto girls of 2016, the Loudoun Valley boys of 2019 and the Newbury Park and Summer Creek boys of 2022, for example -- the best moments were captured across a single year or two. No program has extended Super-Team-level success past a typical 4-year cycle. 

For the most part, graduations split squads up. But if the theory here is correct, Phiri's vision, execution and coaching may be able to sustain this success past a few seasons. Miami Northwestern is the most accomplished program in Florida history. But the Bulls haven't ever featured the amount of stars this Montverde team exhibits in 2023.

Phiri is very aware of time, its fleeting embrace and the purpose he must covet from the limitations placed on that future. 

"There might never be a team like this for 20 plus years," he said. 

Montverde currently owns the nation's top performances in the boys 55m, 60m, the 4x400 and the long jump. Performances by his boys and girls athletes inside the country's top 10 performances are many across the spectrum. 

Realistically, the Eagles have the potential to win anywhere from one to seven national titles across the boys and girls events in March at the high school national championships. 

The man at the center of it all will be Phiri. 

And to think, it almost didn't happen. 

"Sports has been my life," Phiri said. "I don't know where this journey will take me. Maybe I will coach until I'm older. But I'm embracing the journey that God has put me on. When the Glory departs from this place and it's my time to move on, I will do that." 

He's still thinking about culinary school.