Joe Balestrieri grew up as an athlete who was shifty enough to elude tacklers in football and tough enough to take the hit when he failed.
He possessed the vision to see the entire field in soccer with an undeterred focus on the goal.
He carried a bat naturally in baseball with the hand-eye coordination to field ground balls and catch too.
Then lacrosse found Balestrieri and all of those qualities came together with more. That slippery way, durability, field keenness and stick-and-ball knack transferred to a new sport nearly as well as Balestrieri transferred to Grand Canyon University later in life.
The end gain was Balestrieri being honored as this year’s Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association Division I Player of the Year and graduating from GCU. The Rancho Bernardo, Calif., product drew the national honor for amassing 62 goals, 21 assists and 31 ground balls as a senior.
Any award and every point was appreciated by Balestrieri but only in the scope of his main mission – winning the MCLA championship.
“I was really excited to get the award but it didn’t overpower the national championship because that was really our ultimate goal as a team and what I really wanted in the end,” Balestrieri said.
In the beginning, Balestrieri had no idea that such lacrosse success was in store for him. He played a slew of sports until a Pop Warner football teammate’s father, Dennis Yeatman, lured him to the youth lacrosse scene that he started in the San Diego area.
Measuring shorter and weighing in lighter than teammates mattered less in lacrosse, where the size of his competitive drive and weight of his work ethic became more important. Being compact and skilled played well for Balestrieri then and now at 5 feet 9 and 170 pounds.
“Honestly, I picked it up pretty fast,” Balestreri said. “It was fast-paced and unique. I really enjoyed it from the beginning.”
Balestrieri took the long way from Rancho Bernardo to Phoenix with two stops in Maryland before finding his niche in lacrosse and student life at GCU. After playing at Essex Community College and Division III Stevenson University, Balestrieri transferred to GCU for the warm weather, top-notch facilities and the passion and knowledge of Lopes head coach Manny Rapkin and assistant coach Jeff Guy.
Balestrieri made an impact in the 2016 season as a junior with 56 goals, 31 assists and 21 ground balls. His stats did not differ much as a senior but his leadership changed.
“GCU brought a lot of structure personally to him, not only his commitment to lacrosse but his commitment to school,” said Balestrieri’s father, Frank. “The people surrounding him at GCU benefitted him to become the person he is today. You could see the maturity level rise.
“He took it upon himself as a senior to help the younger players. He wanted the team to be successful. He stressed it.”
Balestrieri pursued team success as a passionate competitor and a compassionate teammate. He was an instinctual momentum changer whenever the Lopes were challenged during a 13-game winning streak.
Playing calmly and confidently, he posted his highest scoring games in some of the team’s biggest moments. He netted seven goals and two assists in a Southwestern Lacrosse Championship playoff game, opened the MCLA playoffs with a seven-goal, two-assist game and sent GCU to the MCLA title game by scoring six goals against California in the semifinals.
“He’s a team player, not selfish, distributes the ball well, versatile,” GCU goalkeeper Alex Larson said. “There’s not much he can’t do, as far as dodging, passing and scoring. Obviously, his shots are second to none. He’s one of the better players that I’ve played with, including guys at Rutgers (Larson’s former Division I school).”
Balestrieri uses a shorter frame to his advantage, delivering shots from low and narrow angles to surprise unprepared goalies. He carried on the drive and perseverance of his parents. His mother, Liane, works two jobs and his father, Frank, was a commercial fishing captain whose career ended when scaffolding pinned his leg on a San Diego pier. Frank suffered irrevocable damage, including a broken tibia, severed artery and back issues, and walks with a brace and cane.
His father’s travails were part of what inspired Balestrieri to push and relish his abilities.
“I play with a lot of passion,” Balestrieri said. “I want to win. I don’t like losing so I try to do everything I can to win.”
Balestrieri is known for being a fun teammate off the field but he was all business on it … and in the classroom. Balestrieri graduated from GCU in May with a degree in business entrepreneurship.
He credits GCU for changing his ways as a student.
“His whole outlook on learning shifted at GCU,” his father said. “Many people say, ‘The light turned on.’ Well, with Joe, the light did turn on when he came to GCU. It was amazing to see how his academic level rose. It was quite remarkable because he had the potential the whole time. He told me one day out of the blue, ‘I really like school.’ It was pretty awesome.”
It took thousands of practice shots for dozens of goals. It took years of study for one diploma. It took one moment to make it all worthwhile.
Balestrieri’s lasting GCU memory occurred when the Lopes finished their 12-8 national championship game victory at Chapman.
“Me and Cam (Wengreniuk) just looked at each other when we knew the game was over,” Balestrieri said. “The emotions started going through us and we tackled each other.
“I came to GCU with open arms to see how it would go and it worked out pretty well.”