August 20, 2014 4:51:18 PM
Hunter Sykes knows he is going to play baseball in college.
Last week, the Heritage Academy senior gave a verbal commitment to play baseball next year at Division II Mississippi College. That decision is the first of many Sykes will make in the next 12 months that will help him become a better baseball player.
Another decision Sykes made before he picked Mississippi College could play an important role in helping him mature. For the first time since he was in the ninth grade, Sykes is going to play football. At 7 tonight when Heritage Academy takes on Caledonia, Sykes will line up as a wide receiver who hopes to play a key role in helping the Patriots earn their third-straight playoff appearance.
"Hunter Sykes is going to be a plus for us. He is an athlete," Heritage Academy coach Barrett Donahoe said. "He does a lot of good things for us. He has good speed. We are really excited about having him out here with us. We hope he is turns out to be what we think he is going to be, which is a good athlete on the field who can stretch the field for us and make quality catches."
Sykes said he wanted to become a better leader, so he decided to return to play football. After playing on the Heritage Academy Middle School team, Sykes, who also is a member of the school's baseball team, gave up football to play fall baseball. This season, he hopes to follow a path similar to the one Austin Fitch followed last season. In 2013, Fitch returned to playing football after having not played for a number of years. Fitch's return to the sport might have been more involved given he took over as quarterback.
Caledonia coach Andy Crotwell also has had experience with seniors coming for football for the first time. Last season, Jeffrey Gore played on the defensive and offensive lines for the Confederates. This season, Crotwell said Austin Hollis is the only first-year senior with the program. He said Hollis is learning and growing at wide receiver.
Crotwell said the biggest adjustment for Gore, who also was a member of the school's boys basketball team, was his lack of time in the weight room. With Gore playing up front, Crotwell said you could see the difference in his lack of time compared to the players he faced.
"Jeffrey played several different roles for us," Crotwell said. "He played hard and did whatever we asked him to do."
Sykes said the chance to get stronger playing football was another factor that motivated him to go out for the football team. He feels the amount of conditioning -- either on the field or in the weight room -- will pay dividends for his senior baseball season and when he takes the next step to college. As a wide receiver, he will have to do plenty of running, which should make him even stronger to play pitcher and in the infield come baseball season.
"I think it has gone well," said Sykes, who played safety in ninth grade but will play cornerback this season. "I have learned a lot and a lot of different stuff from ninth grade."
Donahoe said he was impressed with the job Fitch did in his return to the sport. He praised Fitch and Sykes for being high-character kids who are leader on the field and on the campus. He believes Sykes will be a valuable addition to the team because he can do so many things.
"He can bring a deep threat at receiver, plus be somebody who can run with anybody on the field," Donahoe said. "We are really pleased to have him out there.
"Hunter is a program-type guy, He buys into the program and buys into what we do."
Sykes and Jahill Gray are the only two Heritage Academy seniors who are back out for football this season. Last season, Donahoe said Fitch was one of eight seniors who was new to the program after deciding to return to the sport or by transferring to the school.
"That was a challenge from a locker room standpoint to mesh early," Donahoe said. "All of them played an integral part in it. The guys who were with us before accepted the new guys. You had guys like Logan Bell, Hunter Anderson, and mark Thatcher -- and Luke Ellison really stepped up in a leadership role -- those guys were able to take the new guys and welcome them and embrace them. I can't say enough about Austin Fitch and his character. ... He is a great kid. He really changed the mind-set of our program."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.