August 16, 2014 6:09:52 PM
Hunter Sykes has wanted to play baseball in college since he was 8 years old.
Sykes has played other sports, but he feels baseball is "it." He isn't exactly sure what about baseball clicks with him, but he knows he has worked hard throughout the years to enhance the skills he has.
"I just have tried to follow what the coaches have told me and do it to the best of my ability," Sykes said. "I never thought I would do Division II or Division I. I always thought I would start out with JUCO."
Sykes never allowed those thoughts to stop him, though. Whether it was the spring, summer, or fall, Sykes worked on his skills as an infielder and as a pitcher in an effort to position himself to attract the interest of college coaches.
On Wednesday, those efforts paid off as Sykes gave a verbal commitment to play baseball for Mississippi College.
Sykes said the coaches at Mississippi College followed him throughout the summer when he played with East Coast Baseball. He said the coaches asked him if he would be interested in attending Mississippi College, so he visited the school and loved the campus. He also liked the fact that Mississippi College has his field of study -- physical therapy -- which helped make him feel he had found the right fit.
"My fielding has improved in my time with East Coast Baseball," said Sykes, who has played with East Coast Baseball for two years. Sykes' father, Greg, is one of the founders of East Coast Baseball, a Christ-centered select travel baseball organization.
"Balls are hit harder (in East Coast Baseball). They're (hit) as rinky dinky as they are in academy baseball."
Sykes said he primarily played second base with East Coast Baseball.
He has pitched a little bit with the travel team, but not as much as he did this past season for Heritage Academy. He also played third base and shortstop for the Patriots.
Heritage Academy coach Bruce Branch said Sykes could have gone the junior college route and explored his options while improving as a player. He said Sykes' decision is a "great opportunity" to get started earlier.
"Having an opportunity to go to a four-year school, you can get redshirted there, and they can give him an opportunity to get bigger, stronger, faster," Branch said.
"I think they have two junior college guys coming in right now, so it is setting up good for him to potentially start as a freshman or maybe even as a sophomore and be a three- or a four-year starter. I think it is a great setup for him."
Branch said Sykes deserves the opportunity because he was worked extremely hard from an early age to realize his baseball dreams. He said Sykes' time with East Coast Baseball, a select travel team based out of Columbus, has given him opportunities to face even better competition that he sees in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools.
He said those chances have improved Sykes' confidence and raised his level of play, which helped him attract the attention of the coaches at Mississippi College, a Division II school in Clinton.
"He has been a kid who has put the time in over the years," Branch said. "He has been a great student of the game."
Branch admits that Sykes has overcome not being the biggest or the strongest player by being determined to take his skills to the next level. He said Sykes' example should show anyone who loves the game of baseball what they can do if they apply themselves and pursue their dreams with the intensity and dedication that Sykes has shown toward baseball.
"He is just a late bloomer," Branch said. "We have had kids come through here who weren't the best player as a freshman or as a sophomore and then you really start to see them maturing, and Hunter is one of those guys. If he peaks his sophomore year in college, that is going to be great for him."
Sykes knows everything at the Division II level will be harder and faster, but he said he has gained confidence from playing with East Coast Baseball. He said the time with the team has helped him relax and know he can compete with the best players in the country. To get it done before baseball season gives him the ability to have fun and play hard -- just like he has done for the past nine years.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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