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A (possibly fake?) high school apparently duped its way into playing on ESPN

An "online-only prep school" found its way on ESPN's air Sunday... after playing on Friday.

The ESPN family of networks were jam-packed with high school football this weekend, the first of the 2021 campaign and the first real season in two years. The weekend was concluded Sunday with the grand finale -- the Hall of Fame Classic at Canton's Hall of Fame Stadium, pitting defending national champion IMG Academy against.... a high school that doesn't really exist?

ESPN seemed just as confused as the rest of us, and said so as its announcers vamped their way through a game that was not at all the one they thought they were getting.

For starters, Bishop Sycamore, claiming to be from Columbus, Ohio, went 0-6 last season, the program's second in existence. IMG pummeled Sycamore by a score of 56-6. But nevertheless, Sycamore got in Sunday's showcase game because, according to ESPN, the school acquired a number of FBS prospects to its roster. 

Except, as Anish Shroff and Tom Luginbill explain here, that turned out not to be true.

"Bishop Sycamore told us they had a number of Division I prospects on their roster," Shroff said. "To be frank, a lot of that we could not verify." 

Now, the obvious question is why ESPN would put a team on its air it knew so little about. Sunday's matchup, along with every game ESPN aired across its weekend-long Geico High School Football Kickoff slate, was apparently arranged by Paragon Marketing Group. From the company's website: "Paragon works with ESPN programming to select the top regular season football and basketball games in the country, typically airing around 25 games annually. We coordinate the schedules, sell/integrate sponsorships and manage event logistics on-site."

Beyond that, Bishop Sycamore -- or, at least a team of high school-aged kids wearing Bishop Sycamore uniforms -- played on Friday night.

Sto-Rox of McKees Rocks, Pa., defeated Bishop Sycamore 19-7 on Friday. Here's video proof and everything (it's tough to tell here given the teams are wearing the same uniforms, but Sycamore is in the same all-black look they wore against IMG on Friday.)

After losing in Pennsylvania on Friday, Bishop Sycamore was drilled 58-0 on Sunday. 

Vanishingly little on Sycamore's founding exists on the internet. What appears to be the school's website, BishopSycamore.org, is basically a blog; its most recent post, on May 21, explains how to catch a college recruiter's attention on social media. The website's About Us section is blank. 

The only hard proof I could find of the school's existence outside a football team is this Massillon (Ohio) Independent article from last September where, even in the most favorable light, this online only-prep school exists somewhere in between Findlay Prep and Prime Prep on the spectrum of alternative, sports-focused high schools.

“It seems like, when you read (about the school on the internet), you hear things about, ’Well, they just run around aimlessly and are just trying to play football,’” associate AD Dave Brown told the paper. “I don’t think that people understand that, a lot of these young men, they really, really, really, really want to go to college, they really, really, really, really want to be good fathers. ... The way to teach those things is through football. I don’t think people understand that. They get so caught up in the football aspect of it that they don’t realize there’s actual people who really want to do better in their life."

Entering an address associated with Bishop Sycamore leads you to an office park on Google Earth.

Whatever Bishop Sycamore is, it's not stopping with IMG Academy. The program plays a national schedule this year. They're in Kentucky on Friday, then go to Dallas to play powerhouse Duncanville on Sept. 10. Trips to Florida, Maryland, Connecticut, Nevada and Virginia follow after that, an 11-game schedule with none in the program's "home" of Columbus.