Shaq-Like Shak Helps Power Royals
Post Player A Key To EMU’s Surge
Posted: February 1, 2013
HARRISONBURG — Sophomore Shakeerah Sykes has long been known to her teammates as “Shak” – with a “K,” she clarifies, not a “Q.” The Eastern Mennonite University women’s basketball forward insists her nickname has nothing to do with a comparison to Shaq, the former NBA center.
But it’s hard not to see some similarities.
Like Shaquille O’Neal, Shak is a big, bustling post player whose best move is to overpower people inside. She’s at her best when she’s grabbing rebounds in bunches, but she’s been occasionally limited by injuries to her legs.
Teammate Bianca Ygarza describes Shak as “outgoing, an extrovert, she’s funny, loud in a good way” – also Shaq-like qualities. Shak even has an uncle named Bryant. (But not Kobe.)
One major flaw in the comparison: Shak doesn’t start. She plays fewer than 16 minutes per game. But she’s making the most of those minutes.
Sykes is scoring 9.2 points on 53.1 percent shooting and grabbing six rebounds per game for the Royals (14-5 overall, 10-1 in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference), who have won seven games in a row and are tied atop the ODAC standings with Guilford.
You could make the case that Sykes, who started every game last season but was supplanted by Ygarza in the starting lineup this season, is the most efficient player in the conference. She’s third in the ODAC in points per 40 minutes (23.8) and second in rebounds per 40 minutes (15.1). No one else in the league is in the top 10 in both categories. (Ygarza, who’s 11th in each, is closest.)
The hard part for EMU coach Kevin Griffin is figuring out how often to play Sykes. Both starting frontcourt players, Ygarza (10.5 ppg) and junior Kala Yoders (7.8 ppg), were all-conference last season, and freshman forward Jess Rheinheimer (9.2) and sophomore forward Raiven Patterson (7.9) are pretty good options, too.
“We don’t know that we’re doing it [the rotation] right, I’m being honest,” Griffin said. “It’s just really, really hard to get them all minutes. …Could she [Sykes] play 25 minutes and start on almost every team in our league? Yeah.”
Sykes said she could care less whether she starts; she even admitted that she deserved to lose her starting job to Ygarza after, as she put it, “I really didn’t perform that much” as a freshman, when she averaged fewer points (6.2) and rebounds (4.8) in more minutes (17.2) than this season. She was also hampered by tendinitis in her knees.
“I do think Bianca deserves the spot this year, and I think she’s fulfilling that title,” Sykes said. “I don’t have to start.”
She credits a difficult upbringing for her humility.
During much of Shakeerah’s childhood in Portsmouth, her mother, Arlene Sykes, was sick with kidney disease and diabetes, Shakeerah said, and died of cardiac arrest when Shakeerah was 12. Shakeerah has a brother who’s six years older, but she said she did most of the caretaking for her ailing mother.
“I was her nurse, basically,” Sykes said. “I knew every medicine she had to take, I knew when to call my grandmother to come get us. Even though it was hard not to have a childhood, I’m still thankful that the amount of time I had her was directly with her.”
With her father out of the picture when her mother died, Shakeerah said, she moved in with her uncle, Bryant, and her aunt, Rita, in Dumfries. It wasn’t until her seventh-grade year that she started playing basketball, and she didn’t get serious about the sport until her sophomore year at Forest Park High School.
Sykes said she was offered a full athletic scholarship from Davis & Elkins, a Division II school in West Virginia, but instead chose EMU, a D-III school that can’t offer athletic scholarship money.
“EMU just felt like a better home to me,” said Sykes, who said her aunt and uncle, plus money from her mother’s trust fund, help pay her tuition. “It was a small school. I love Coach Griff. He was part of the reason why I actually came here, because of his coaching style.”
Now, Sykes is part of one of the deepest frontcourts in the ODAC, and she’s been particularly important to the Royals’ winning streak. She’s scored at least nine points in EMU’s seven straight wins, including a double-double against Virginia Wesleyan (11 points and 10 rebounds) and a near-double-double the next game against Bridgewater (nine and 11). Her power and rebounding inside adds another dimension to EMU when she’s in the game.
Just don’t call her Shaq.
“She can shoot and drive, and rebound – everything that a post can do,” Ygarza said.