February 8, 2011 7:58:00 AM
Matt Sykes looks like a goalkeeper
With a red bandana, fluorescent lime green jersey -- stained through from plenty of dives on the sopping turf, and a hyperactive ability to move from post to post, the sophomore maneuvers unlike someone who has started only seven varsity matches.
Judging from the way he parried and blocked shots Monday at C.L. Mitchell Field, Sykes will have plenty of time to hone his skills.
Sykes did everything he could and more to extend one of Heritage Academy''s best boys soccer seasons in recent memory. Unfortunately, A.J. Arnold and Jackson Academy proved to be too much to handle in a 7-1 loss in the first round of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Division I tournament in Columbus.
With the win, Jackson Academy, the No. 3 seed from the South, advances to take on Jackson Prep, the No. 1 seed from the South, at 3 p.m. Thursday. Heritage Academy''s best season in at least a decade ends at 9-3.
Sykes, who also plays striker, took over in goal after sophomore Goodloe Chilcutt broke a femur. A backup goalkeeper who saw the majority of his previous action on the junior varsity level, Sykes'' athleticism helped him keep the Patriots in the game in the first half. Even though Arnold, a sophomore striker, had three of his four goals in the first half, Sykes made at least a half dozen saves in the opening 40 minutes to keep the Patriots within striking distance.
"I just play my hardest and go from there," Sykes said. "I was trying to finish out the season on a high note and no just quit.
"They are just a good team. We couldn''t get anything going today."
A Bobby McGrath goal in the 17th minute off a corner kick helped the Patriots tie the game at 1 and gave them hope despite the two-goal deficit that they could use another set piece to make it a one-goal game.
Jackson Academy had other ideas.
Clay Johnston cleaned up a failed clearance less than 10 minutes into the second half. He then shouldered past a defender in front of the goal box to take a pass from Arnold that he tucked under Sykes to make it 5-1 with a little more than 24 minutes remaining.
"I think we struggle a little bit playing on a narrower field," Jackson Academy coach Nic Henderson said. "Our guys out wide were kind of lost, but I thought all in all we did fine. We just needed to come out here and get an opportunity to get the job done. They got a good goal against us that we were disappointed in giving up, but I thought we were fine."
Heritage Academy mustered little offensive pressure the rest of way, which pressed Sykes into action. He obliged by diving, sliding, and leaping to make goal-saving stops. He saved three or four that looked to be certain goals, and received some help from the crossbar or post on two others.
"We had a lot of times when we gave their goalkeeper a chance to make a save, and, to his credit, when he gets a chance to make it he does," Henderson said. "He did a good job. He is very mobile in there, and that makes it difficult for us at times."
Sykes stayed active in the windy conditions until the end. With a little more than seven minutes remaining, he came off his line to deflect the ball away from Harrison Partridge. For his troubles, Sykes was knocked to the ground and lost his headband. Less than a minute later, a shot by Arnold that snuck in the near post left Sykes on his knees staring back at the post.
"I was just shocked at how they were scoring so good," Sykes said.
The sting of the loss didn''t last long. He said it was satisfying to have such a successful season even if they had to do it without Spencer Perkins, who died before the start of the season. He said the Patriots dedicated the season to Perkins and didn''t want to let him down.
"He was a great guy," Sykes said. "Everybody misses him."
Heritage Academy coach Joe Asadi praised the effort his team for raising its level after experiencing so many hardships. He complimented Sykes for his effort in goal, and believes he will have many more fine moments -- whether it is in goal or somewhere else on the field.
"He is good at any sport he does," Asadi said. "He is very coachable. ... He has a heart. Any young person, if they set their mind to what they want to do, they can do it. He wants to play the game and to be the best. If you have that attitude, you can get better fast."
That''s the same mind-set the rest of the Patriots will take as they continue to build a program.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.