Setting high expectations

Tennis star puts drive and passion to work in support of women

For a 6-foot-2 guy with a cannon for a serve and a forehand that stacks up with the best in NCAA Division II, Daniel Belsito doesn’t attribute his success in tennis to his physical gifts. He claims that tennis is “75 percent mental,” and he proves it on a regular basis.

A prime example: Belsito was playing in the most prestigious Division II individual tournament of the year, the ITA Cup, last fall. In his third match of the day, he was battling Angel Palacios, the current No. 5 player in the nation. Belsito won the first set 6-4 before dropping the second 4-6, and the two players went back and forth in the third set as night settled in on Rome, Georgia.

The pressure was immense, but although he was fatigued and being pushed to the brink by one of the top players in the nation, Belsito still believed he would win. Scratch that; he knew he would win.

“Not once did Danny waver from his confidence,” says his coach, Michael Cabana. “He stuck to his game plan. Everything was positive self-talk.”

Steve Belsito drummed that attitude into his son as the younger Belsito played on high-level basketball and baseball teams growing up in Charlotte, before he turned his attention to tennis as a young teenager. “Always be the mentally strongest. That’s something you can control,” Steve would tell his son. “You can’t control the weather outside. You can’t control your opponent. But you can control your own brain and your own attitude.”

In north Georgia last October, Belsito shrugged off the pressure, the fatigue and the dropping temperatures and prevailed 7-5 in the third set over Palacios, giving the Wingate grad student yet another big win in a career full of them. Belsito entered the spring season 52-9 in singles in his three-plus years at Wingate, including a South Atlantic Conference Player of the Year award (2018) and a SAC Man of the Year honor (2019), in addition to Academic All-America recognition.

He’s got the size and athleticism to succeed in sports, but he wins matches between the ears.

“Danny is very confident,” Cabana says. “When Danny steps on the tennis court, he thinks he’s going to win. He has that chip on his shoulder that when he walks on the court, he’s the better guy. You’re going to have to play a complete match. He’s not going to give you anything.”

Belsito is one determined individual, whether it’s a midweek SAC match with archrival Queens or a research paper for his Master of Arts in Sport Management degree.

Or, as Cabana found out last year, a cause that unexpectedly grips Belsito’s heart.

Set the Expectation

In October of 2018, Wingate’s entire athletics department listened to a presentation by Brenda Tracy, who in 1998 claimed (with a tremendous amount of evidence) that she was sexually assaulted by four men, two of whom were football players at Oregon State. After being vilified and even receiving death threats, she declined to testify in court, and the charges were dropped. The football players received a one-game suspension and then moved on with their lives.

But time failed to heal Tracy’s wounds. In 2016, she began speaking about her ordeal in front of athletes, especially men. Tracy urges student-athletes all over the country to sign the Set the Expectation pledge, in which they promise not to tolerate acts of sexual assault or domestic violence.

At Wingate, her words hit home with many Bulldogs in the audience. Belsito began to think of his mother and his older sister, Kristiana, as Tracy described the attack. “I felt sick to my stomach even trying to relate to the pain she must have felt,” Belsito says. “I began to feel my blood boiling thinking about all the women who have told me about these kinds of experiences happening to them or their loved ones.”

Belsito acted immediately. He spoke to his coach after the presentation and said he wanted to meet the next day to discuss ways to raise awareness in the community. “He jumped in feet first,” Cabana says. “He had notes. ‘Coach, this is what I’m thinking.’ ‘Can we do this? Can we do that?’”

Belsito and Joel Roberts, then the team’s assistant coach (now head women’s coach at Presbyterian College), planned a Set the Expectation event surrounding Wingate’s home match against defending national champion Columbus State in early March 2019. They invited students from area high schools to a free prematch clinic and gave out pizza. They sold T-shirts and raised money for Turning Point, a battered-women’s shelter in Monroe.

The primary goal of the day was to raise awareness of sexual assault, and the instinct to cover it up, on college campuses. “We want to make sure that this is a campus and an athletics department where women feel supported by men,” Belsito says.

Cabana says the event was a success and will be replicated at a match this season. “Danny made sure to say, ‘Hey, I don’t want this to be a one-time thing,’” he says. “He’s very passionate. It’s a good word to describe Danny. He’s passionate in everything he does.”

Natural-born competitor

When they decided to have children, Steve Belsito and Gail Henderson pledged to home-school their kids for as long as possible. Belsito loved learning at home, and he wound up being home-schooled for the entirety of his primary and secondary education, except for a stint at a private school in sixth grade.

Belsito is like the poster child for the home-school movement. Far from being stunted in his social development, he is as outgoing as they come. “Anybody who knows me knows I love to talk about everything,” Belsito says. “It’s hard to get me to quiet down sometimes.”

He’s also a phenomenal student, having graduated with a sport management degree last May with a 3.76 grade-point average.

Home-schooling had several benefits. The family was able to travel extensively, and Belsito grew up taking regular trips to Europe and Central America. To this day, he says, his disposable income goes toward traveling to see teammates in their home countries.

A more-flexible schedule was also convenient once the tennis bug bit Belsito hard.

Belsito was a basketball and baseball player when, around the age of 12, he went to see a basketball teammate’s sister play tennis. Having played team sports exclusively up to that point, he was intrigued by the solitary nature of tennis. Something about the sport appealed to him, and Belsito decided to give it a go. “It’s a completely different knowledge that you have to have, and mindset, in an individual sport,” he says. “I just dropped everything else and said, ‘I want to chase this.’”

Through connections at his church, Belsito found a coach, and he immediately gave it his all. Within a couple of weeks of first picking up a racket, he’d signed up for a lower-level tournament in Charlotte.

He got waxed – again and again. It didn’t faze him.

“Getting beat pretty handily, multiple times week after week, just fueled the fire to want to get better and keep working,” Belsito says. “It became an obsession after that.”

Belsito admits to being “a natural-born competitor,” and within two years he was ranked highly in North Carolina. He and Josh DuToit, another Charlottean who would eventually play for the Bulldogs, became hitting partners and friends, and each made it their mission to be ranked No. 1 in North Carolina in their respective age groups. Each won N.C. State Closed titles as juniors.

Being home-schooled, Belsito graduated from high school a semester early, enabling him to get a jump-start on college. He signed with Presbyterian, an NCAA Division I school in Clinton, S.C., and enrolled there in the spring of 2015. He redshirted that season but left school after one semester, feeling it wasn’t a good fit.

Belsito reconsidered college sports. He spent a year taking classes at a community college, figuring out what he wanted to do next. “I wasn’t planning on playing college tennis again,” he says. “I just thought, you know, it wasn’t for me.”

DuToit got in touch, knowing his buddy was teamless, and told him he should check out Wingate. “I didn’t even really know Wingate was here,” Belsito says. “So when I crossed the train tracks, it was a surprise to see that this beautiful university’s here.”

It turned out to be a perfect match. Belsito became one of the Bulldogs’ top players pretty quickly. He achieved a lot in his first three seasons: leading Wingate to the national tournament, winning conference Player of the Year honors, being an Academic All-American. He capped it off with the SAC Man of the Year honor.

When he graduated last May, he thought he was done with college tennis.

But he had one more year of eligibility, and Cabana at least had to ask. “It took some work. I’m not going to lie,” Cabana says.

Back for an encore

“I truly believed that I was done when we finished in May last year,” Belsito says. “I shed all those tears when we lost in the regional championship, and I was very happy and content with where I was.”

But then Cabana came calling.

“It’s hard to pass up another chance to put on the blue and gold,” Belsito says. “So for me, it was a pretty easy choice. You know, let’s come back and do it again. And not to mention, the sport management department on this campus is second to none.”

Getting to earn a master’s degree is a bonus for Belsito, and having him back on the court is a boon to Wingate’s hopes of advancing even further than the regional semifinals, which they lost to No. 5 USC-Aiken last spring. The Bulldogs were No. 6 in Division II at the time, and they are currently ranked fourth. Belsito is the country’s sixth-ranked player (despite his win over No. 5 Palacios).

Belsito’s return not only provides a nationally ranked player to join two others in the top half of the lineup (Roy Stepanov is No. 50; Josep Canyadell, Belsito’s doubles partner, is No. 46). It also provides Cabana with another motivator on the team. Belsito’s unceasing confidence tends to rub off on his teammates.

“When he talks to the younger players, he just stresses the fact that he’s always confident when he walks on the court. I overheard him talking to a younger player a week ago saying those same things,” Cabana says. “He’s been a great leader for me the past three years. He loves the team aspect of it. He really does. He’s all about guys putting in the work. He’s going to hold guys accountable.”

Coming off an injury, Belsito didn’t play his first singles match of the spring season until Feb. 25, against a gutsy Limestone team. It was another vintage mind-over-matter outing for the Bulldogs’ No. 1 player. Playing a veteran lefty on an overcast afternoon, Belsito had trouble getting into a groove with his backhand, and he dropped the first set.

But he knew he would win. He always knows. Belsito roared back to take the second set 6-1, then gutted out a tiebreak victory in the third.

Just as he instinctively knew he needed to do something to get Set the Expectation rolling at Wingate, he knew that if he trusted his training and his game, everything would turn out alright on the court.

“I always say that every morning in the weight room, every morning running the sprints and all the practices, you have to trust that and just play free,” he says. “Enjoy the moment. You know, we don’t get to do this for too long.”