November 14, 2012

Bahamian gets a kick out of playing football

More news about: Bridgewater (Va.) | Maryville (Tenn.)
Maryville's Jonathan Sykes can make a soccer ball do pretty much whatever he wants it to do. He's learned, though, that a football is much more stubborn.
Maryville athletics photo

It seems like a dream. A Bahamian soccer player with one semester of NCAA eligibility remaining decides he wants to try a new sport. He patiently learns the new game before taking over a starting role for the final three games of the season. Over the next three weeks, he scores 33 points as his team wins three straight games. In the season finale, he nails a school-record five field goals, leading his team to a share of its first conference championship since 1931.

Wake up. In just three weeks of action, Jonathan Sykes cemented his legacy in Maryville football lore. Sykes, a fifth-year senior from Nassau, made eight of 10 field goal attempts and was perfect on nine point-after tries after ascending to the starting placekicker job.

While everyone was paying attention to the USA South Conference race between Ferrum and Christopher Newport, the Scots quietly rallied down the stretch. With some help from Methodist in the final moments of the regular season, the Scots earned a share of the conference title, finishing in a three-way tie with Ferrum and Christopher Newport.

"Any time you win the last game of the year, it's huge," said first-year head coach Mike Rader. "Our kids were extremely excited."

None were more excited than the man they call "Boomstick." Sykes was born in England and has lived in the Bahamas since 2003. From 1996 to 2000, he and his parents lived in Maryville. His father is a Methodist minister, and the family made close friends during that four-year period. When it came time for the Bahamian to choose a college, he went somewhere familiar.

"I remembered the area, and we have family friends from the church here," said Sykes. "I felt comfortable with the area."

He grew up playing soccer and running track. He was a football fan, but there were no organized leagues in his hometown. He excelled in the sports that were offered in the Bahamas. Sykes was selected to play for the Bahamian national team in its World Cup qualifiers in 2011. After playing four years of soccer for the Scots, the education major with a psychology minor had a semester of school to finish and eligibility remaining. Maryville's soccer coach suggested that Rader give his star player a placekicker tryout.

"Growing up, I never had the opportunity to put on a helmet and pads," said Sykes. "I was learning a whole new sport that I admired."

At first, there were some growing pains.

"His first few kicks went straight into our linemen," said Rader. "It was almost comical. Watching him grow and take over the starting job was something special."

Sykes can make a soccer ball do pretty much whatever he wants it to do. The football was more stubborn. In addition to finding the sweet spot on the football, Sykes quickly learned that there was more to a successful attempt than he could control.

"I never realized there were all these things that had to come together to make a perfect kick," said Sykes. "I had to understand that there had to be a good hold, a good snap, good blocking and I had to learn where on the ball I had to hit."

In the season finale, Sykes scored a career-high 16 points. His five made field goals tied a school record. He made his longest of the season, a 46-yarder, to extend the Scots lead from 3 to 6 points early in the fourth quarter.

"That kick really changed the momentum," said Rader.

Sykes said that making the 46-yarder felt better than any goal he scored in his soccer career. Sykes' emergence was just one in a series of fortuitous events that led Maryville to its first winning season since 2007. Rader got his players to buy in and refuse to settle for a fourth straight 4-6 season. After a 4-point loss to LaGrange on homecoming weekend, the Scots reeled off three straight victories to finish the year.

"I don't know if it was just one thing," said Rader. "Our team was growing as the season went on. I think our team learned a lot from that tough loss we took on homecoming to LaGrange."

After defeating Ferrum to tie the Panthers at 5-2 in conference play, the Scots were glued to the 7 p.m. kickoff between Christopher Newport and Methodist. A Captains' loss would give the Scots a share of the title. Methodist trailed by 9 heading into the fourth quarter before rallying. The bus of Scots heading back to Maryville was crowded around Rader's laptop and glued to their phones. When CNU quarterback Marcus Morrast's fourth-down pass fell incomplete with 45 seconds left and Methodist clinging to a 1-point lead, the Maryville bus erupted with elation.

"The roars and excitement on the bus were unreal," said Rader. "It was a wild, electric atmosphere."

A year ago, Sykes was hoping that his strong leg would help his island nation qualify for the World Cup. Instead, his "boomstick" helped his college team make history in an entirely different sport.

"I had no idea that I'd be that fortunate to be put in a position to do something like that when I signed up to play football this summer," said Sykes. "I feel really, really blessed to be a part of this chapter of Maryville football history."

The President

Bridgewater senior defensive lineman Joel Francis finished his final football season but is still enjoying his first year as the college's student body president. That is one campaign we can all get behind during this politically charged season. The Eagles captain ran for election in the spring and, thanks in no small part to his loyal teammates, emerged victorious.

On and off the field, Joel Francis is a leader at Bridgewater. As a defensive lineman, he has more sacks than anyone else on the team. He is also the college's student body president.
Bridgewater athletics photo

"I thought getting involved with student government was a great opportunity for me to lead, not just on the football field," said Francis. "It gave me an opportunity to have my voice heard, not just among my teammates, but among the whole student body."

Francis caught the public service bug when he volunteered as an orientation leader at the end of his freshman year. While most football players focus on school and football, Francis had a role model who showed him that he could do much more. Drew Kirkner was a senior offensive lineman when Francis was a freshman. Kirkner was also the student body president.

"He was an outstanding leader on and off the field," said Francis. "I guess you could say that I'm his protege."

The Eagles were coming off of a 6-4 season, which is somewhat disappointing after an 8-2 season in 2010. Francis' campaign helped energize the team in the offseason and gave them a way to grow closer outside of the weight room and practice field.

"I probably wouldn't have won if it wasn't for the football team," said Francis. "They really helped my campaign, and it was a fun experience for everyone and that carried over to this year as well."

Francis led the Eagles with 4.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss this year. He finished third on the team with 55 tackles. Most important to Francis, he helped lead the Eagles to a 7-3 season, which included handing Washington and Lee its only conference loss of the season. While he will miss leading his football teammates as their captain, he relishes in the fact that he gets to continue to lead as the school's president.

"I can attribute the leadership abilities that helped me campaign to my football experience," said Francis. "I owe my entire college experience to my teammates. We got to share in an experience that most football teams don't get."

Saving the best for last

I was going to look back on some of the top individual performances from my inaugural season as the Mid-Atlantic columnist. I didn't get very far. There were simply too many remarkable efforts in Week 11.

Greensboro College rewrote the offensive record book in the season finale, as Ryan Throndset passed for 598 yards and four touchdowns in the Pride's 31-27 win over LaGrange. It wasn't even the most impressive performance from the Pride. Wide receiver Antwan Thorpe decided to put the receiving records he already held far out of reach, catching 22 passes for 391 yards and three scores, including the game-winner with 17 seconds to play.

Shenandoah defensive lineman Nick Erdman added three tackles for loss in the Hornets' loss to Washington and Lee. Erdman finished his career as Shenandoah's all-time leader in that category, with 40 tackles for loss.

Kyle Boden passed for 323 yards and four touchdowns to lead Emory and Henry to a 38-10 win over Guilford. The win secured the Wasps' first winning season since 2009.

Randolph-Macon controlled the ball for 44:30, thanks to quarterback Zac Naccarrato completing 16 of 19 passes and Will McGhee toting the rock 34 times for 186 yards. The Yellow Jackets won The Game, 41-31, despite Hampden-Sydney quarterback Nash Nance putting up big numbers in his first taste of the rivalry. Nance passed for 293 yards and ran for 119 yards and two touchdowns, including a 79-yard dash.

Sykes was the difference in Maryville's win, but his field goals were set up by Travis Felder's 211 rushing yards on the day.

Dwayne Hollis set the tone in his final career game, returning a punt 59 yards for a touchdown for the game's opening score, as North Carolina Wesleyan knocked off Averett, 32-21. It was his fourth return touchdown (two punts, one kickoff, one interception) of the season.

John Flanagan rushed for 156 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries to lead Methodist to a 30-29 win over Christopher Newport. Captains quarterback Marcus Morrast was valiant in defeat, rushing for 100 yards and three touchdowns and passing for 150 yards and a score without turning the ball over.

Ted Delia rushed 23 times for 153 yards and a score to lead Gettysburg to a 38-31 win over Franklin and Marshall. Diplomats quarterback E.J. Schneider passed for 380 yards and three touchdowns in the loss.

Terrence Dandridge ran for 185 yards and three touchdowns to lead Muhlenberg to a 45-7 win over Moravian.

Chris Curran passed for 275 yards and two scores and ran for 71 yards to lead Ursinus to a 48-7 win over Dickinson.

Taylor Kolmer passed for 321 yards and Connor McGrath rushed for 143 yards as Susquehanna defeated Juniata 21-0.

Needless to say, these players knew it was the last game of the season and, for many, the last game of their career. Kudos to each for leaving it all on the field.

Superlatives

We know which teams were the cream of the Mid-Atlantic crop. Washington and Lee, Wesley, Johns Hopkins, and Christopher Newport will be moving on the playoffs. No Pool C bids were awarded to Mid-Atlantic teams. Muhlenberg was probably the closest thing to a bubble team in the region. So who turned in the best individual seasons?

Scoring

Luke Heinsohn, Washington and Lee, 18 points per game
Jonathan Rigaud, Johns Hopkins, 12 points per game
Evan King, Hampden-Sydney, 10.4 points per game

Passing

Ryan Throndset, Greensboro, 282.50 yards per game
Nash Nance, Hampden-Sydney, 265.20 yards per game
Chris Curran, Ursinus, 263.20 yards per game

Rushing

Joe Rollins, McDaniel, 138.11 yards per game
Will McGhee, Randolph-Macon, 127.50 yards per game
Jonathan Rigaud, Johns Hopkins, 126.20 yards per game

Receiving

Antwan Thorpe, Greensboro, 127.00 yards per game
Holton Walker, Hampden-Sydney, 126.20 yards per game
Mike Ritter, Susquehanna, 89.50 yards per game

Interceptions

Tarrel Owens, Ferrum, 7
Keltcey Richardson, Methodist, 6
Jared Morris, Wesley, 6

Sacks

Bradford Wade, Methodist, 13.5
Ian Gimbar, Muhlenberg, 13
Brandon Felus, Juniata, 11.5

Tackles

Dylan Wolfenberger, Maryville, 13.60 per game
Larry DelViscio, Gettysburg, 12.30 per game
Jajuan Johnson, Shenandoah, 11.89 per game

Playoff bound

Wesley hosts Mount Ida, the automatic qualified from the ECFC. The Mustangs are making their first playoff appearance. The Wolverines have reached the national semifinals each of the past three years.

Johns Hopkins hosts Washington and Jefferson. The Presidents clinched the PAC's automatic bid by defeating previously undefeated Waynesburg in the season finale. The Blue Jays are in the playoffs for the third time in four years. The Presidents are making their first appearance since 2009. W&J will be playing with emotion, as the team has dedicated the season to running back Tim McNerney, who was killed in October. The Blue Jays are the last Centennial team to win in the playoffs, winning two games in 2009.

Washington and Lee travels to undefeated Hobart, the Liberty League champions. The Generals are making their second playoff trip in three years. Hobart is making its second straight appearance. Last year, the Statesmen gave Wesley a surprisingly good fight in the opening round. Hobart boasts the nation's 14th-ranked rush defense, which will combat the Generals' top-ranked rushing offense. The ODAC has not won a playoff game since Bridgewater won its first round matchup in 2005.

Christopher Newport gets the unenviable task of traveling to Alliance, Ohio, to take on top-ranked Mount Union. The last USA South playoff win came in 2007, when North Carolina Wesleyan defeated Washington and Jefferson in the opening round.

Gratitude

My thanks to all of you who read the column this season. It was a blast covering my old conference and getting to know two new conferences. Many thanks to those parents, players, coaches and fans who emailed me throughout the season. A big thanks to all the SIDs who helped me each and every week. Thank you to Pat, Keith, and Ryan for their tireless efforts editing and running this site. I am truly humbled to write for the website that has been my laptop's homepage since 2003. I'll be writing playoff features over the next five weeks, so please keep reading. I hope to see many of you in Salem on Dec. 14.

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