PISCATAWAY, N.J. — After two years of scattered playing opportunities with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, former East Oktibbeha standout April Sykes has found herself in a role — leader.
A 6-foot, junior guard-forward, Sykes is on a team without seniors. So juniors are now the top of the pecking order, and Sykes knows she”ll have to step up.
“We are a young team and we”ve got a lot of growing to do,” said Sykes, who has started 13 times in her 64 games at Rutgers. “We know what we have to do. The major part of the game we have to work on this year is offense.”
The Scarlet Knights, under Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer, open the season Nov. 12 at California. Because of her preseason work at Rutgers, Sykes is The Dispatch”s College Player of the Week
The difficult side of being a leader is the pressure Sykes carries as one of the team”s experienced players. But Sykes has felt pressure before, coming out of East Oktibbeha High School as the No. 2-rated player nationally by Hoopgurlz.com recruiting site. She was considered the nation”s No. 1 forward.
Sykes, however, is trying to push aside the pressure and get her game together.
“Right now, I know that I have to play my game and just not let the pressure get to me,” Sykes said. “We all have to play our roles, do what we know how to do.”
Sykes said Coach Stringer has tried to deflect some of the pressure off her and her teammates.
“She has been a mentor,” she said. “She wants us to focus on what we need to do.”
Sykes said Coach Stringer believes each player who knows their role will be playing with less pressure.
“There”s no need to put more pressure on ourselves,” Sykes said. “She makes sure everyone is comfortable with knowing their role on the team, that we know the do”s and don”ts of the offense and that we have fun.”
Speaking at last week”s annual Media Day event, Coach Stringer said Sykes has developed into more confident player.
“I think she probably feels a little more comfortable,” Stringer said. “There are several reasons for that. No. 1, she”s worked extremely hard — keep in mind that after her freshman year, she was injured. She knew what she needed to do after her freshman year, had the right attitude, so she would have been in much better condition.
“But she had a shoulder injury and that surgery in itself made her basically immobile, they wouldn”t allow her to run or anything. So she gains weight, she”s out of shape, doesn”t get a touch, wasn”t satisfied with her freshman year — none of us were — and the next thing you know, the year approaches again.
“So it”s been that kind of a situation for her,” Stringer said. “She has worked hard, she has lost weight, she is in better condition and I think that she”s much more confident, and she”s worked with a number of people to help herself be more efficient.”
Sykes tore a ligament in her left shoulder, so she has had to work on strengthening her upper body. It”s paid off.
“I am actually stronger this year because of the rehab during the summer,” said Sykes, who lifted weights and did stretching exercises to improve her strength.
The pressure also has tapered off. Coach Stringer pointed out Sykes had high expectations when she first came to Rutgers two years ago.
“Her attitude, it was always good,” Stringer said. “But what April wants to do and what we need her to do is unlock. I don”t intend to put anything on her in terms of the expectations ”You should do this or you should do that.”
“I need her to be a part of everybody else and not worry about it because the greatest burden that anyone ever has is the expectation that one has of oneself and the expectations that everybody else has,” Stringer said. “It puts a heck of a burden on your shoulders when you”re trying as best as you can because she cares about people and she cares about this team; she”s trying to deliver. She knows that it”s within her, but it”s too much mentally, it”s too much. It”s not her, it”s on everybody.”
Sykes, who is listed a guard-forward, said she isn”t concerned about which role she needs to play.
“I know that I can contribute to the team, and I just want to help the team any way I can,” she said. “We have one goal in mind: winning.”
Big East coaches don”t believe the Scarlet Knights can compete for the conference crown this season because of the young players.
“We were picked seventh (in the 16-team conference), but that”s not important,” Sykes said. “It doesn”t matter where you start; it matters where you finish.”
The Big East is big-time college basketball, considering No. 1 preseason pick Connecticut is the defending national champion. Also chosen ahead of Rutgers in the Big East are West Virginia, Georgetown, Notre Dame, St. John”s and Louisville.
Included on the 2010-11 schedule are 18 teams who played in either the 2010 NCAA Women”s Basketball Championship or in the Postseason WNIT. So when Sykes finds some free time, she”s usually in the gym. Sykes said her free time is limited.
“We really don”t have as much free time as most students,” she said. “We are in the gym or in the classroom or doing what we need to do. Sometimes we don”t even have time to eat. We always have something to do.”
Sykes said she has become a better student of the game and hopes to use that knowledge in the next two years and after she graduates.
“I hope to play after college in the WNBA,” Sykes said. “Then I plan to become a coach.”
Going to school in New Jersey doesn”t give Sykes much time to return home often. She said her next trip home to Starkville will be during the Christmas holidays.These days, however, she has felt a change in how she is treated.
“I don”t get the ribbing at school about being from the South much anymore,” she said. “They did most of that my first year (at Rutgers). Now I get it when I go home. They”ll say, ”Oh, you”re from New York now.””