High School Sports

This Coast pitcher wasn't alone on the mound during remarkable season at D1 school

Former West Harrison ace Jacques Pucheu pays tribute to his sister, Sydney, prior to Saturday's start. Sydney Pucheu died in a car crash in Texas in November.
Former West Harrison ace Jacques Pucheu pays tribute to his sister, Sydney, prior to Saturday's start. Sydney Pucheu died in a car crash in Texas in November. Austin Peay Athletics

Jacques Pucheu wasn’t alone when he took the mound this season.

The former West Harrison ace and East Mississippi Lion has always said a little prayer behind the mound prior to pitching, but this was different.

He doesn’t ask for success or strikeouts when he bows his head before a game. He simply asks for safety and health.

“Whatever happens, happens. I’m going to praise God no matter what. But for whatever reason, I said ...,” Pucheu said in late February, pausing to compose himself, “ ... be with me.”

As he took the mound for his season debut for Austin Peay State University, Pucheu altered his tradition to mention his older sister, Sydney, who was killed in a car crash in November.

“Each inning I just kind of looked up and said, ‘be with me,’” Pucheu said.

Austin Peay’s photographer caught Pucheu on the bus to the Gateway Grizzlies’ stadium staring out the window with his headset on.

Jacques Pucheu 1
Former West Harrison ace Jacques Pucheu heads to the ballpark with a tribute to his sister, Sydney, on his Austin Peay hat. Sydney Pucheu died in a car crash in Texas in November. Tres Lawless Austin Peay Athletics

Admittedly scatterbrained in the hours leading up to first pitch, the junior said his mind was bouncing between his season debut, his sister and whatever the music was that pumped through the headphones.

“SYD” was inscribed in white ink on bottom corner of his black Austin Peay hat, just above the red bill. “RIP SYD” is written on the heel of his cleat

“I just want to honor my sister,” he said.

Close family

The youngest of three siblings, and the son of Gulfport councilwoman Cara Lero Pucheu, Jacques called 23-year-old Sydney his second mother. She was always supportive of her little brother, now 21. They’d text before and after games. Even in high school, Sydney would come to Jacques’ practices and games.

When Pucheu transferred from EMCC to Austin Peay prior to last season, Sydney, made a point to drive up to Clarksdale, Tennessee, from Ole Miss, where she was pursuing a hospitality management degree.

After his sister’s death, Jacques received an outpouring of support from family and friends. One of the first Bible verses he received stuck with him. The night before Sydney was laid to rest, he got James 1:2-3 tattooed on his right bicep.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance,” the scripture says.

Finding strength

In the months since Nov. 13, Jacques, said he has found refuge and comfort in conversations with his older brother, Jacob.

“It’s nice to have another sibling to be able to talk about it with,” he said. “That’s really the only person who it’s the same for, I guess.

“He’s my best friend so it’s really good to have somebody like that who you can go to and talk to.”

With his sister heavy on his mind in that South Dakota State game, Pucheu surrendered a solo homer in the first before settling into a groove. He ended up striking out nine in 5 1/3 innings as the Governors went on to win 9-3.

“I always want to be perfect,” he said of the start, a characteristic that goes back to his days on the Coast. “Once you give up a hit or a walk or a run it’s like you can’t be perfect anymore, so go compete; go do your job.”

The performance was a good sign from Pucheu, whose rehab from a partially torn ligament in his elbow spanned his time at Scooba and his first semester at Austin Peay.

As a sophomore last season, Pucheu was eased back into duty, pitching in relief early on before transitioning into a weekend starter. He finished with a 2-2 record with a 4.93 ERA.

“I’m grateful to get a chance to play,” Pucheu said. “I’m trying to run with it and make the most of it.”

Strong finish

The Coast native proceeded to have an all-time season for the Govs. In addition to being 7-4 with a 4.03 ERA — second-best on the staff — Pucheu struck out six batters in Thursday night's Ohio Valley tournament loss to Eastern Kentucky. The punchouts gave the southpaw 101 on the season, marking the third time in program history a pitcher has cleared 100 in a single campaign.

The milestone will put Pucheu in Austin Peay's record books, but chances are they won't be the main reason he remembers the 2018 season.

"Pray," he said on Austin Peay's website while talking about how to cope with loss. "Love your teammates. Love your family. Love your friends. Find people you can talk to. Faith is my number one priority. I know one day I'll see her again and til then.

"... God's got a bigger purpose for this. I don't know what it is, but we'll find out eventually."

Patrick Ochs: 228-896-2321, @PatrickOchs