In sports, it seems as if the triumphant story of a collegiate walk-on athlete jumps to the top of headlines every season.
Manhattan College graduate student Joe Jacques is just the one you haven’t heard about yet.
“It was pretty stressful times, I didn’t know what I was doing,” said Jacques, as he recalled the final weeks before submitting his college deposit as a senior in high school.
After a successful career at Red Bank Regional High School, Jacques was faced with a tough decision regarding his next four years. The left-hander knew he wanted to play ball at the next level, but had no offers on the table.
“I was planning on going to Florida Atlantic actually…but it kind of hit me at one point, I had too good of a talent to waste it,” said Jacques. “One of my friends was going to Manhattan…I didn’t even really know anything about the school, I just took a shot in the dark and came here.”
Jacques’ arrival on campus was gone about like most of the things he does on a daily basis: quietly and politely. He arrived on campus, met with the coaches and showed up to tryouts with the utmost confidence in himself.
Of that same freshman class is another graduate student in Matt Forlow. He arrived on campus as a recruited walk-on; meaning the coaches knew he was coming, had made room for him on the roster but had not granted him any financial guarantees. Still having to compete himself, Forlow took notice of the surprise talent.
“Usually, you can tell when walk-ons are going to make it; and you could tell Jacques was going to make it because he had good stuff,” said Forlow.
Even as a freshman, Jacques’ legacy as a walk-on quickly grew. After starting the bullpen as a left-handed reliever, Jacques found himself in spot starts on the weekends (which are the crucial conference matchups in every college baseball season).
“As freshmen you really don’t care, it’s just you’re trying to help the team in any way possible,” said Jacques.
Though his demeanor wouldn’t lead you to believe it, the left-hander was faced with the tall task of assuming a leadership role early in his college career. With the brain-trust of Manhattan baseball being in constant limbo during the course of his five-year career, Jacques was forced to become a leader for himself and the players around him early on.
“In college you can have that leadership role as an underclassman,” said Jacques. “I feel like our class, when we came in, we were the real core of the team, and that really helped.”
Among Jacques’ impressive characteristics, leadership and poise were the two that stood out to new pitching coach Chris Cody ’07. Cody is a school legend; literally having been immortalized in Manhattan’s Athletic Hall of Fame in November of 2017. However, he still found himself leaning on Jacques to be a liaison to his new team.
“He kind of reminds me of the way I was when I was here,” said Cody. “I’ve definitely leaned on him and Matt Simonetti as my lieutenants, you could say.”
With solid conference play so far, the Jaspers still have their eye on the ultimate prize, a MAAC Championship. However, Manhattan’s left-hander finds himself in a similar position to where he was five years ago. Except this time, he has some opportunity in front of him.
“We had two scouts come to one of our practices where I was throwing,” said Jacques. “They liked me right away, and came up to me to ask for my email and information.”
That was at the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, a year in which Jacques was forced to apply for a medical redshirt due to a season-ending back injury. For many, that could be a dagger that would wipe away the opportunity of playing at the next level for good, but Jacques’ ability to maintain his composure and work ethic allowed for his name to resurface this season.
As a result, scouts have frequented Manhattan baseball weekends this year with their eyes on number 34.
“You see what guys are getting looked at, what guys aren’t, and there are a lot of guys looking at Jacques whenever he takes the mound,” said Forlow.
What make Jacques attractive to the eye of a major league scout are his size, demeanor and unorthodox arm slot; which makes it exceptionally tough on left-handed hitters to track the baseball out of his hand. With fastball velocity that sits just above 90 miles per hour, Jacques profiles well in the eyes of a scout looking for someone who fits at the next level.
“A pitcher’s make-up, I know that’s a big word in pro scouting ‘what his make-up?,’” said Cody, who had an 11-year professional career with the Detroit Tigers, Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers organizations. “I think that is something he does really well.”
With a run at a conference championship, graduate school and the potential opportunity to extend his playing career all coming to a head in the coming weeks, it would be natural for Jacques to be subject to some level of pressure. Instead, the former walk-on re-tools his past experiences as a guide and a foundation to rely on, allowing him to maintain confidence in himself as the moments continue to get bigger.
For now, the fifth-year senior is fixated on continuing to lead by example. With just three conference weekends left, the Jaspers have an opportunity to make, or break their season. Naturally, Jacques deflects the pressure, and keeps his focus on the things he can control.