BAY SPRINGS, Miss. (WDAM) _ On the first play of the first game of Sylva-Bay Academy’s 2018 football season, Hunter Sykes suffered a gruesome injury to his finger.
“It was the first game of the season, the first play, the kickoff, and I shattered it making a tackle,” Sykes said. “They just taped it up and I played the rest of the game.
“Yeah, it hurt a little bit. Well, it actually hurt a lot.”
Shortly after, Sykes had surgery that required two screws to straighten and stabilize, a surgery that sidelined him for the next five games.
Sporting a cast, Sykes returned for the Saints’ final six games and helped Sylva-Bay make a deep run to the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools’ Class AA playoffs state semifinals and post a 10-3 record in the process.
Sykes, who starts at middle linebacker and fullback, backs up quarterback and running back and plays key roles on special teams, was selected as Sylva-Bay's “Player of the Pine Belt.”
“He’s always on time, never missises practice, loves football,” Sylva-Bay coach Terry Underwood said. “Comes from a great family. Loves Sylva-Bay. He just gives you his best and tries to be the best that he can be each and every day.
“He’s averaged 14 tackles (the past two seasons). He was a good player on a poor team who became a great player of a good team.”
The Saints will need the grit and determination of Sykes and his fellow Saints if they are to build on the success of 2018.
That, and a little luck. The Saints are a small band of brothers, with a roster of between 25 and 30 members. Most start on offense and defense, with responsibilities backing up other positions.
Injuries can be devastating. Conditioning is critical.
“With a team our size of about 25 players, everybody’s got to be able to play both ways, everybody’s got to be able to stay in the game,” Underwood said. “So, conditioning is huge. It’s vital. We would not be as good or competitive as we want to be if were not in good shape.”
The senior class may be small in numbers, but boasts key playmakers in Sykes, leading rusher Tyler Crosby and quarterback River Thomas, a basketball standout starting his second season behind center.
All three also play defense, Crosby at outside linebacker, Thomas at free safety.
“Everybody’s got to come in the morning because we are very low on depth compared to last year,” Sykes said. “Our starters are great, but everybody’s got to play both ways, and if you’re not in condition, you’re not going to be able to do it.”
Underwood, whose first Sylva-Bay team won three games before breaking through in 2018, said the Saints understand they can not rest on their laurels.
“Having a big turnaround and having a winning season, I think our expectations are higher," Underwood said. "But I do know this having been coaching for more than 40 years: Every team’s different and every year’s a different year, and just because you had a good year last year, doesn’t mean you’re going to have a good year this year. You’ve still got to work, you’ve still got to go compete, and I think our kids know that.
“They’re just outstanding kids, about as good as anywhere I’ve ever coached, and everywhere I’ve coached, we’ve had great kids.
“We have a saying here, ‘We’re not staying the same.' I got that from (long-time Pine Belt area coach) Nevil Barr, and he was right. You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. That’s what I thrive on, what I look at every day. Are we getting better or are we getting worse? We’re not staying the same, and I think the kids have bought into that."
Sylva-Bay Academy opens the 2019 season at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 22, at Brookhaven Academy.