By JON BAKER
LINCOLN, R.I. – As a junior at Lincoln High four years ago, Stefan Balestra considered himself a rather solid discus thrower, but then-weight coach Brian Grant told him he had all the earmarks of a standout hammer heaver.
"That's when I first started taking it seriously," explained Balestra, now a 20-year-old Stonehill College sophomore. "I had quit the wrestling team to do indoor track. Brian had me throwing the 25-pound weight, and I just fell in love with it.
"I really liked the intricate timing you needed to have to assemble a good throw," he added. "If your foot placement is off, your timing isn't there or you're not connected to the ball, you won't get the optimal toss. You've got to have everything right down to the smallest detail."
Balestra never did achieve that premier distance in the indoor weight or outdoor hammer in high school, although he did garner runner-up honors in the discus at the 2014 Rhode Island Outdoor Championships at Brown. Still, that was of little consolation, as he wanted to excel in the hammer.
He exaggerated when he claimed it took "forever," but he finally achieved his dream heave back on April 30. At the Stonehill-hosted Skyhawk Invitational Outdoor Meet, Balestra unleashed the 16-pound ball and chain a whopping 175-6 to placed third overall.
In the process, it became the second-best toss in the Northeast-10 Conference this season, and missed by only 10 centimeters from provisionally qualifying for the NCAA Division II Men's Outdoor Championships in St. Leo, Fla.
Thanks in part to Balestra's placement, Stonehill captured its own meet title for the eighth straight year. The 'Hawks notched 255 points, 67 more than Division I runner-up Holy Cross (188) and an exorbitant 103 more than third-place Assumption (152). For the record, Bryant and Boston University gathered fourth and fifth.
"I remember it was beautiful outside; sunny, 75 (degrees) and no wind," Balestra said. "It was my third and final throw of the prelims, and I remember, right when I let it go, it was going to be a good one, that it would soar. I could tell on my third turn that I had the correct positioning, and then I entered the fourth turn; I was so connected to the ball.
"When I heard the distance, I flipped! My previous best was 167-1, so that was a huge difference," he continued. "It was a huge throw for me, my best of the season. I was just happy to get what I wanted; I waited so long for it.
"In high school, I was always better in the discus; now I'm better in the hammer because I've spent so much time doing it. Brian Grant really pointed me in the right direction my junior year. He said he thought I'd take right to it because of what he called my natural athleticism; he thought I'd take right to it. He saw my potential, and I just kind of bought into it.
"It still took a while for me to gain confidence in throwing it."
Balestra indicated he threw a 12-pound hammer in high school competitions (as is the case per national interscholastic rules), but took part in a couple of meets offering the collegiate-weight 16-pounder.
"We went to the International Hammer Implement Invitational at Mount Pleasant High School my senior year), and I ended up throwing it 142-6," he mentioned. "My PR for the 12-pounder in high school was 181-2, but I still only finished, like, 10th or 11th in the state.
"The hammer was a joke to me before Brian kept telling me I needed to focus on it," Balestra claimed. "I didn't believe in myself, so I was always concentrating on the discus. I knew I was better in that. Of course, I don't feel that way now. It was surreal when I uncorked that thing. I really couldn't believe it; I still remember what it felt like."
He explained he went to Stonehill for a variety of reasons.
"I was always attracted to the beautiful campus, the prestigious academics, but I went because the track coaches and team sold me," he said. "It had such a sense of community and closeness, and the leadership was obvious."
That success has spawned new excitement and a greater workload for Balestra this summer, as he's looking for his junior indoor and outdoor campaigns to be even more special.
"My goal for next year is to get to 58 meters, or 190 feet; that will qualify me for D-II nationals, and I think it's attainable," he offered confidently. "I think I can hit that mark, especially with all the help I'm getting from my coaches this summer," among them Stonehill mentor Richard Hart and Grant.
"I'm training six days a week – three in the circle, three on the weights – and it's all got to do with that throw," he added. "It's really inspired me. The two guys who beat me at our Skyhawk Invitational? One was a kid from Harvard, the other one from Boston University.
"They're both seniors, so you know where that puts me!"