Lenny Holmes is the headmaster of the new sports academy at XL Sports World in Saco. The academy will combine athletic training with online learning for up to 16 student beginning in September. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

SACO — Lenny Holmes sits in a chair in an otherwise empty room at the XL Sports World and says, almost apologetically, “The desks haven’t arrived yet, which is too bad. You could see this would be a nice space.”

That empty space, which was recently renovated, will be turned into a classroom for up to 16 students as part of Maine’s first sports academy. XL Sports World Academy will open on Sept. 8 for students in grades 7-12 who, Holmes said, are looking for to maximize their athletic abilities.

“The really motivated athlete, that’s who is the ideal candidate,” said Holmes, who will be the headmaster of XL Sports World Academy. “It’s for a kid who has ability, is super motivated and wants to max out his talent.”

While sports academies are prominent across the nation – IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida and the Sports Academy (formerly Mamba Sports Academy when the late Kobe Bryant was a co-owner) in California are among the more successful ones – they are rare in New England. Some schools offer specialized training in winter sports like skiing and snowboarding, such as Carrabassett Valley Academy. But they differ from XL Sports World Academy in that they offer in-person education and dormitories.

XL Sports World Academy will feature online academic courses, provided by EdOptions Academy, while also providing specialized sports training that covers individual skills, nutrition and sports psychology. Abi Davids, who runs the XL Thunder club basketball program, will be the director of basketball training. He will work with two certified athletic trainers to come up with an individualized plan for each athlete.

XL Sports World Academy will not field teams. Instead, students will be registered within Maine as home-schooled students, with the academy providing the tutoring mechanism, allowing them to play for their local school teams. Tuition is $12,000 per academic year.

Holmes, who is the director of alternative education at Bonny Eagle High School, was approached by the owners of XL Sports World in mid-May – two months into the coronavirus pandemic – about the possibility of starting a sports academy. XL Sports World has 10 facilities along the East Coast and offers a soccer academy at one of its Orlando sites, though that is partnered with a private school.

XL Sports World in Saco is a 75,000-square foot facility that includes three basketball courts, two soccer fields and a fitness center. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Kris Lamb, one of the co-owners of XL Sports World, said the Maine site was chosen for a reason.

“Once the pandemic lasted a few months, we were looking at things and said, we have the facility and, more important, the right people, so we could run a similar school in Maine,” said Lamb. “You’ve got to have the right people, and we did in Maine. Lenny has an incredible basketball background and Abi is regarded as the best youth basketball coach in Maine. To have those people there, and the facility and the demand, it all kind of fell into place and made complete sense.”

Holmes, 55, has been involved in basketball for four decades, either as a player, coach or club director. He graduated from UMaine-Machias in 1987, playing basketball there. He coached the Windham High boys’ team from 1990-97, then, after a couple years assisting at the University of New England, dipped his toes into club basketball, serving at one time as the New England AAU director of basketball. He owned Southern Maine Sports Zone in Saco from 2008-12 before selling it to XL Sports World for $2 million.

XL Sports World in Saco is a 75,000-square foot facility that includes three basketball courts, two soccer fields and a fitness center. The academy will focus on basketball training for now, but Holmes said it plans to expand to soccer instruction.

The online educational component was the final piece. Sensing the uncertainty surrounding the return to school in September even then, Holmes suggested that using an online educational component could be attractive to parents who aren’t sure they want to send their children back into classrooms. With the start of the school year approaching fast, more Maine families are exploring home-schooling options. XL Sports World Academy will pay EdOptions Academy $2,500 per student for use of its educational platform.

He also thought hard about what a sports academy might mean to Maine athletes. He specifically thought of his daughter, Mackenzie, who will enter her sophomore year at Indiana University, where she was named to the All-Big Ten freshman team.

“When I evaluate things, I ask, ‘Would that be something I would be interested in for my kid?'” he said. “If Mackenzie had this, I can’t imagine what options she would have had her senior year (at Gorham). She had incredible options anyway. But one of the hardest transitions for her (at Indiana) wasn’t the skill level, but the intensity of the training. She’s really reshaped her body in college. Having that ability to focus on that training … If you have someone like her, who is super motivated, if you want to take the greatest advantage of your time, you come in, you get faster, you get stronger, you learn more about nutrition, you spend five days a week training for your sport … think of the difference that can make for a kid.”

The fitness center at XL Sports World in Saco. Its sports academy will launch this fall with up to 16 students. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In late July, XL Sports World announced on Facebook that it would be launching the academy this fall. Two families have already registered their children.

“The COVID situation, and what’s going on at school, not knowing what’s going to happen, gave it a little push,” said Tessa Mazza of Newfield, whose 11-year-old daughter, Jordyn Crump, will attend the academy. “But I think we would have done it anyway.”

Jenna Moin, whose 16-year-old son, Nick Langella, will attend the academy, said his passion for basketball was the deciding factor. Langella played for Deering High as a sophomore last year.

“I’d be lying if I said (COVID) didn’t impact it a bit,” she said. “I didn’t want him at home on a computer all day and I was not comfortable putting him back into school with such a large population. Putting (COVID) aside, I think this is a great option for him.”

HOW IT WORKS ELSEWHERE

Combining online education with an intensive sport training program is a model that has proven successful.

Total Package Hockey, started in 2001 in Huntsville, Alabama, is one example. The company had significant success helping train hockey players from the start: 45 TPH-trained players have been NHL draft picks and 206 have committed to NCAA programs, including Mitchell Fossier, UMaine’s captain and leading scorer this past season.

The shift to a more holistic approach started with the Detroit facility in 2014 and gained momentum when Total Package Hockey fully partnered with online educational provider Edmentum in late 2018. Edmentum is the company that runs EdOptions Academy, the platform that XL Sports World Academy intends to use. With a start-up location in Boston this fall, Total Package Hockey will be in 13 markets, with facilities equipped not only for hockey and athletic improvement but also dedicated classroom and study space.

A typical day runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. It combines four to four-and-a-half hours of individualized online learning with about two hours of off- and on-ice training, along with a snack and lunch break and other supplemental skill work.

“No partnership we have is more important than Edmentum,” said Francis Anzalone, the chief operating officer. “That’s a great platform to be on. When the pandemic hit in mid- to late-March, our kids didn’t miss a beat academically. They just worked from home and we had a 100 percent graduation rate across all our (facilities).”

With the exception of their Nashville and Central (Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky) affiliates, Total Package Hockey does not have actual teams. The students in grades 6-12 are paying between $10,000 and $17,000 (depending on location) for sport-specific skill development, overall athletic training, and gaining academic preparedness to be successful at the next level.

While the curriculum is delivered online, in-person academic leaders are an integral component, Anzalone said. They’re responsible for keeping students accountable, fostering a positive learning environment and working with each athlete to determine their own best-practices for learning.

“The No. 1 stigma we face, even though the outcomes are proving otherwise, (is) parents are worried, is my kid going to be in a cold rink, sitting next to a vending machine with a laptop open and on their own academically?” Anzalone said. “We’re fighting that less and less because the data is starting to support this model, not just for Total Package Hockey, but for a lot of other sports service providers.”

This year, Total Package Hockey expects to have 450-500 student-athletes.

“What’s the value? I think there’s one reason above all: It’s the amount of time spent on the individual,” Anzalone said. “The team is all about the we and I’m all for that, but the we is made up of a number of me’s. We dedicate a lot of time to the individual. Here’s how you can become a better student. Here’s how you can become a better athlete, a better person, and we’re spending a lot of time tailoring that to the individual.”

US Performance Academy (USPA) is a private, online school for grades 6-12, designed for students with the goal of pursuing Olympic-caliber athletic dreams or careers in demanding performing arts. It is the brainchild of Pete Smith, 43, who grew up on the island community of Southport and pursued his own Olympic dreams in sailing.

Smith and USPA are not in the business of training athletes. Instead, they focus on creating an online model that fits with an athlete’s schedule that requires extensive training, travel, and sometimes a competition schedule that conflicts dramatically with the normal school calendar. USPA has partnered with elite organizations like the Sports Academy, multiple hockey organizations, and national sport organizing bodies in artistic (synchronized) swimming, surfing, skiing and snowboarding. This school year, Smith said he expects USPA to have 150-200 students at a tuition of $11,900.

One thing that sets USPA apart is that not only is the curriculum accredited (USPA uses a company called Edgenuity), so is the school itself.

“We felt strongly that we’re never going to be able to train an Olympic diver, or a football player,” Smith said, “but we can support an athlete in a really unique way, and that’s why we’ve stayed in that lane and are partnering with folks like the Sports Academy.”

CLASSROOM STUDIES, ATHLETIC TRAINING

Asked if he’s concerned that there won’t be enough interest to fill the 16-seat classroom at XL Sports World Academy, Holmes shakes his head, noting that he has at least 30 appointments set up during the next few weeks for families interested in the school. And that’s just through the Facebook post announcing the academy and word-of-mouth advertising.

“I think a lot of people are waiting to see what the schools will do,” he said.

Students at XL Sports Academy will start each day with two hours of athletic training, which includes access to the fitness center and individual drills. Classroom work will be from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with a short break for lunch at noon. They will then have access to the basketball courts after school is out.

Everything will be individualized, from the athletic training program to the nutritional guidelines to the academic offerings.

“Even though we might have 16 kids in the classroom, there are probably going to be 16 different academic plans,” said Holmes. “There are really no limits on what a kid can do in the classroom.”

Abi Davids runs players through a basketball drill last week at XL Sports World in Saco. Davids will head up the basketball program at the new XL Sports World Academy. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Davids, who was born in Nigeria, grew up in England and eventually became a college basketball coach there, said each athlete will have a plan catered to his specific skills.

“Every kid will have a player profile,” said Davids, who attended Kents Hill School in Readfield. “There will be metrics to determine who that player is as a person. And I’m hoping we can change those metrics and improve performances within them. It’s all going to be data driven.”

And that’s what was so attractive to the families who have already registered.

“The reasons we’re going are twofold,” said Mazza. “There’s the academic side. I saw it as an opportunity for my child to work at her own rate … and to explore things that are interesting to her. On the athletics side, she is very interested in basketball, loves Coach Abi and the program he has, and would spend 24 hours a day there if I let her. It’s an opportunity to allow her to do something she loves.”

Crump, who is entering the seventh grade, said she feels she will gain more confidence attending the academy. “They’re like a family to me there already,” she said. “In that program, they will stick with you through anything and they will help you. I feel confident and know if I make mistakes, they’ll be there for me.”

Langella hopes to play college basketball. Moin, his mother, said the academy gives him the best chance to do that.

“He’s passionate about basketball,” she said. “And he’s looking for his future, setting college goals, fitness goals, academic goals. This encompasses all those things.”

The fact that Langella can still play for Deering made it an obvious choice for him.

“I feel like me being able to play at Deering is one of the reasons I’m going,” said Langella. “I’m so close with people on my (Deering) team. I just feel this is a good opportunity for me.”

He is especially intrigued by the nutritional aspect of the training. “Getting my body right, getting ready to compete at the next level is important,” he said. “And just being around people who have the same goal as me, I feel it can help me get a lot better.”

Nick Langella, right, played for Deering High last season and plans to do so again next winter. He’ll attend the new XL Sports World Academy, whose students are technically home-schooled. Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald Buy this Photo

The school will offer other benefits. XL Sports World will provide financial assistance in the form of scholarships. Chromebook laptops will be provided to any students who need one. A meal plan will be offered. And there will be someone in the classroom at all times to help students if they need it.

“My hope is that these kids are well rounded,” said Davids. “I want them to take basketball serious – I’m talking mind, body and soul – but … they’ll be held accountable in both the classroom and the court.”

One of the things that Holmes is stressing is that attending XL World Sports Academy in no way guarantees an athletic scholarship to college.

“This is not about promising one kid a scholarship if they come here,” he said. “This is about a serious athlete who wants to maximize their potential. That’s what we are about. This is about you maximizing your talents and your skills. Nobody can promise you anything. Do I think there will be a better chance (at a scholarship) if you do this? If you look at the amount of time you’re going to put into it, obviously. But this is an opportunity that hasn’t existed before.”

And the parents understand that.

“By no means are we under the impression that this is a guarantee into a college basketball program,” Moin said of her son. “The sky is the limit for him, but he knows he needs to put in that work. I hope that it helps him develop his tools, and if gets (a college scholarship), it’s on his own merit.”

Mazza added, “This is not one those, ‘You stick with us, you’re going to get (a scholarship).’ If the interest is there, we’ll back her 100 percent and allow her to do what’s right for her and give her the motivation and the coaching she needs to do it.”

– Staff writer Steve Craig contributed to this story.


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