CLEARWATER — Clearwater Academy has won its first nine football games by ridiculous proportions, outscoring foes by an average of 50-8. Five of those wins have come against teams in position to make the playoffs.
What makes the Knights' start noteworthy is how quickly the team has transformed into a juggernaut. Clearwater Academy started off in six-man football more than a decade ago before transitioning to seven- then eight-man. In 2016, the Knights switched to the traditional 11-man game played by most public and private schools.
And Clearwater Academy has done it by becoming one of the most ambitiously global football teams in the area, if not the state. Nearly half the roster consists of players born outside the continental United States. There are players from American Samoa, Canada, China, Germany, Italy and Spain.
They all have flocked to Clearwater, to play for a school that uses study methods developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and is located three blocks from Scientology's spiritual headquarters.
Nearly all of the international players are here to immerse themselves in American culture. Many also are trying to catch the eye of colleges.
"There are not a lot of pathways for a non-American to play football at a high level," Clearwater Academy headmaster Jim Zwers said. "We have contacts all over the world. We are known because we can do student visas. Not everyone can do that. Many of these kids can't just simply show up to a public school in America."
The benefits of embracing intercontinental football have been clear this season with the Knights on the verge of their first undefeated regular season. Three international players have already committed to Division I-A programs. American Samoan Sio Nofoagatoto'a, a defensive tackle, is going to Indiana. He will be joined by Canadian Kervens Bonhomme, a linebacker. Another Canadian, receiver Jared Wayne, will attend Pittsburgh.
Before arriving, Bonhomme constantly crossed the border to attend camps. He had offers from UMass and Maine. Once Bonhomme came to Clearwater, he noticed things were different.
"It was something exciting to see coaches watching practice and scouting," Bonhomme said. "You don't get that back home. Here coaches come to you. In Canada, you have to come to them to gain exposure."
Clearwater Academy's immersion in global football started when Aldo Stanzani, a former star in Italy who coached the program from 2009-12. One of Stanzani's teammates sent his son to Clearwater to play American football. Others followed.
"That was our first tap into other countries," said Jesse Chinchar, the Knights' current coach who played for Stanzani. "These guys played with Aldo and now they wanted their kid to come here to study abroad, to learn some English and to play some football. … Now, our international students are coming generally with the mind-set to make it to the next level."
And the number of international players will continue to grow.
"These kids all have friends back home," Zwers said. "They're all following what's happening here. We live stream the games. They're watching and chatting and following their buddies. We've got probably the biggest fan base of any high school anywhere."
International players are still paying the private school's $11,000 annual tuition, though they can apply for financial aid like any other student. They stay with host families who are connected with the school.
The school uses a method for learning called Study Technology, developed by Hubbard.
"It's a better way to understand and retain information," Zwers said. "A lot of it has to do with really fully understanding everything you read and clearing that up. It's defining terms, not just pushing it on students but making sure you understand this fully. In the classroom, we work to get 100 percent of understanding in one subject before moving on to the next.
"It's connected with L. Ron Hubbard, but it's not a religious activity or anything like that."
Zwers said he estimated that less than half of the roughly 250 students enrolled (about 80 at the high school level) are Scientologists.
"I don't know percentages, but I have Scientology and non-Scientology staff," Zwers said. "We've never really added it up (the student population). That would be kind of weird in a way. I wouldn't go to (Clearwater Central Catholic) and ask how many Catholics are here and have them raise their hand."
Chinchar also applies Study Technology in his coaching philosophy, mostly to make sure his players are understanding the words and terminology being used. That is important when overcoming language barriers with foreign students.
"People don't realize how wordy football can get, said Chinchar. "It's making sure you understand the terms."
It's not just the playbook the players have to get used to. They also have to adjust to the weather.
When Dimitri Gkountoudis arrived last year from Germany, the first thing he noticed was the heat.
"I got out of the airport, I was already sweating," said Gkountoudis, a center who has offers from Delaware State, UMass and Tennessee Tech.
Clearwater Academy's football world view is now branching out among families. Stanzani's son, Luca, is a freshman in his second season as the starting quarterback. Luca currently is second in the state in passing yards with 2,658 yards.
"It's been cool how we've all been able to come together," he said. "We've also got to know people from around the world and from different cultures and backgrounds."
Clearwater Academy currently is playing as an independent. The staff wants to beef up the schedule next season, but there are no plans to join a Florida High School Athletic Association district.
"We want to take baby steps, and continue to have steady growth," Zwers said. "Right now, we're just having fun with what we're doing."