08/20/2015 8:20 PM -
Whiting, Ind. – August 20, 2015 – Stefano Belmonte heard the question.
He heard it over and over again. And again. And again.
“Where are you playing this year?”
Throughout his summer with the Oilmen, the question came from teammates, opposing players, coaches around the league, media members and team employees. Off the field, it came from friends and family members.
Every other Oilmen player had their 2015-2016 school listed on the team’s official roster. Next to Belmonte’s name, that column read, “uncommitted.”
“Guys would say, ‘We want you at Holy Names, we want you at Butler, we want you at Central Michigan,’” Belmonte said. “Every time I was asked about it, I would have to say, ‘No, not yet.’ That was a lot of pressure.”
Finally, the question has been answered. On August 12, a week before the start of the academic year, Belmonte officially committed to play for Division-I Florida Gulf Coast of the Atlantic Sun Conference.
“They have a really good hitting coach in Rusty McKee,” Belmonte said. “The location is perfect. It’s right near the beach. The weather is awesome, which is a blessing coming from the Midwest.”
The holdup for Belmonte was that he needed to gain Division-I academic eligibility before committing. After graduating from St. Rita High School, the Munster native sat out as a redshirt freshman at Purdue in 2013. He transferred to South Suburban Junior College, where he spent the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
Belmonte originally committed to Division-II Grand Valley State for the 2016 season, but he requested and was granted his release because he wanted to push to fulfill his goal of returning to a Division-I program.
At the beginning of the year, Belmonte hired an academic adviser who told him that he could gain Division-I eligibility by retaking two courses – macroeconomics and math. Retaking them over the summer could allow him to boost his GPA above the 2.5 required to compete in Division-I athletics.
He eventually earned B’s in both courses during the summer, boosting his GPA to a 2.75. However, 15 games into the Oilmen season, it became apparent that the academic adviser was incorrect – he still would still be nine credits short of gaining Division-I eligibility.
A different academic adviser – this one an employee of Florida Gulf Coast – stepped in to assist Belmonte. The adviser found an etymology class that Belmonte took as a freshman at Purdue that Florida Gulf Coast was previously not going to accept, and gained approval from the university for the credit to transfer. That drew him closer to the 72 credit hours needed, but there was still work to be done.
The adviser recommended the CLEP English Literature exam, which would allow Belmonte to earn six credits if he passed. Although he received short notice before taking the exam – comprised of 50 multiple choice questions and two essays – Belmonte did everything he could to prepare. He passed with flying colors, finally putting him at 73 credits and in position to play at Florida Gulf Coast.
As all this unfolded by day, Belmonte was still taking the field for the Oilmen each night. He blocked out the distractions enough to put together an all-star season and earn a spot on the MCL All-League Team by batting .341, launching two home runs and driving in 30 runs.
“I’m not going to lie, it was very difficult,” Belmonte said. “I had taken my options away (by decommitting from Grand Valley State). I risked my scholarship to a D-II. It was really hard for me to focus. In season, it did get really stressful. It was tough for me to think about the games. It’s hard to think about the present when you’re future could be ruined. I was playing very nervous and worried for two-thirds of the season.”
However, being around his Oilmen teammates and other players in the league provided a support system for Belmonte.
“A lot of players in the league had my back,” he said. “The MCL has a lot of good people in it and it’s a great league to be in. I had a lot of fun and it was a great experience.”
Although Belmonte can let out a sigh of relief with his quest for Division-I eligibility behind him, he didn’t have much time to sit back and relax. He has reported to campus, where classes are already in session and 6 a.m. workouts are underway.
Belmonte is rooming with first baseman Nick Rivera, who was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 38th round of the 2015 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. According to the Naples Daily News, Rivera turned down a $300,000 signing bonus from a different big league team to return to Florida Gulf Coast.
“He’s going to help me out a lot,” Belmonte said. “He’s got a lot of experience under his belt. He’s going to try to help me reach my goal of getting drafted.”