Van Belle Powers Through to Earn Opening Day Start
By Christy Cabrera Chirinos
CORAL GABLES, Fla. – He pitched a career-high 95 innings last spring, won a team-high 10 games and earned a spot on the All-ACC second team after emerging as one of Miami’s aces.
A season later, though, there are still so many moments Brian Van Belle describes as “surreal.”
When he pulls on the orange and green uniform similar to the one he once wore as a youth baseball player with the Miramar Canes. When he sees Erik Buisine, Jose Gutierrez and the rest of Miami’s grounds crew tending to the pristine grass at Mark Light Field. When he stands on the mound, his arm strong as he delivers pitch after pitch without feeling any pain.
Given the journey he’s taken to get to Miami, Van Belle can’t help but feel grateful.
There’s likely to be more of that Friday night when he throws the first pitch of the season for the third-ranked Hurricanes when they open an expectation-filled year against Rutgers.
“Every day is an opportunity to get better and being the Friday-night starter at the University of Miami is surreal,” the 23-year-old Van Belle said with a smile. “I’m not taking it for granted. I’m grateful for every day I get to put on that uniform and be on that field.”
Five years ago, Van Belle arrived at Broward College a lanky two-time state champion from Archbishop McCarthy High School who was crafty, if not powerful. He dreamed of playing Division I baseball and spent his first semester plucking weeds from the outfield grass at his new field and working to bulk up his-then-141-pound frame.
Van Belle eventually earned a spot in the Seahawks’ bullpen but then, weeks into his first season of junior college ball, the game was taken away from him.
After throwing a curveball in a game against Florida Southwestern State College, Van Belle felt a “shock” in his arm. One pitch later, that shock became a pop and he went to the dugout.
He later learned he’d torn his ulnar collateral ligament and only reconstructive Tommy John surgery would get him back on the mound. He was sidelined for two seasons.
“It hit me hard,” Van Belle said. “My whole life I’d thought my arm was kind of unstoppable.”
Driven to get back to baseball, Van Belle went through 14 months of rehabilitation before he was cleared to pitch again.
Then, in the spring of 2018, after earning interest from his hometown Hurricanes and committing to finish his college career at Miami, Van Belle was dealt another physical blow.
This time, it was a shoulder injury that cut his season short and kept him from pitching in the Florida junior college state tournament.
“I just had to shut down my arm, but it was another thing that was kind of a slap in the face,” Van Belle said. “I had spent 14 months recovering from Tommy John. I was 65 innings into my first year of eligibility. I was already committed [to Miami] and then my shoulder started to bother me. … I was in shock. … Thankfully, I didn’t need surgery.”
For that, both Van Belle and the Hurricanes are grateful.
After going through another stretch of injury rehab, Van Belle made the most of his first season at Miami, working his way out of the bullpen and into the starting rotation.
By season’s end, he’d become Miami’s No. 1 starter with a 3.30 ERA and 84 strikeouts.
“He forced our hand,” said baseball coach Gino DiMare, who on Friday is set to begin his second season at the helm of the Miami program. “We had to put him in the No. 3 spot to start out the year last year … He ended up being the MVP of our team, pitching-wise. It’s a great story from that standpoint. … Injuries are hard and he was [out] twice. As a pitcher, that’s very difficult. But he came back to be our guy and that says a lot about him.”
Added Hurricanes pitching coach J.D. Arteaga, “He’s probably the biggest competitor on our staff. You know what you’re going to get with him – the consistent seven innings, three runs, you’re going to have a chance to win and you bullpen is going to be in a good place coming into Saturday and Sunday.”
Van Belle’s coaches aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed the pitcher’s resiliency.
Though he’s been at Miami just one season, his teammates voted him one of the Hurricanes’ two captains heading into the year. And even the pitchers he competed with to earn the No. 1 spot in the rotation can’t help but be impressed by what Van Belle has brought to both the mound and the clubhouse.
“The journey he’s gone through has been a tough one. It’s been long and not many kids have the mental toughness to go through what he went through,” said junior righty Chris McMahon. “For him to get the call to be the Friday night guy, very happy for him. … I don’t think there’s any better guy to set the tone on weekends than him.”
For his part, that’s what Van Belle hopes he can do against Rutgers and beyond.
Named a preseason All-American by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, Van Belle understands full well that for the Hurricanes, putting together anything less than a run to Omaha and the College World Series will be a disappointment.
And he, like the rest of his teammates, is embracing the lofty expectations and the challenges ahead, especially given all he’s endured to get here.
“We’re incredibly excited, the entire team. Obviously, there’s a lot of hype going into the season. There are preseason accolades and rankings and stuff like that,” Van Belle said. “But at the end of the day, the most meaningful ones are going to be at the end of June. Our goals are to obviously win a national championship and end up the No. 1 team in the nation. …
“Five years from now, you don’t want to look back and say, ‘I was a preseason All-American and we were ranked [third].’ You want to look back and say, ‘We were national champions.’ That’s where we’re at, the entire team. That’s where our minds are at. … We’re just ready to go, compete with other teams, show everybody what we’ve got and prove ourselves.”