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ASU Hockey: On NCAA, Connor Schmidt, Ryan Belonger going back where it all started

Both Connor Schmidt and Ryan Belonger used to be Division I players. And next season, they will be again.

Courtney Pedroza/House of Sparky

There are 29 players on the Arizona State hockey team. Twenty-seven of them have never played NCAA Division I hockey. Two, defenseman Connor Schmidt and forward Ryan Belonger, are going back to the highest level of collegiate hockey.

"Words are indescribable right now," Schmidt said. "It really hasn't set in yet, but I just feel honored to be apart of this organization and I feel special knowing that in the future I can look back and say I was apart of the transition."

Schmidt played parts of two seasons with Ferris State in Michigan from 2012-14. Belonger played two full years at Northeastern University in Massachusetts. Both are NCAA Division I schools, and future competition for the Sun Devils.

Schmidt played his freshman year at Ferris State and only 10 games in the 2013-14 season before returning to his original United States Hockey League junior team in Des Moines, where he was when he committed.

Connor Schmidt

He was 16 then, a junior in high school. Now at age 21, he found out he was going back to the show. The difference was five years ago he knew what he was getting into. This time he happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Which is what also happened to Belonger. He's long been a friend of Arizona State defenseman Jordan Young, and decided he wanted to leave the NCAA to come play ACHA hockey with his friend in the desert. He never thought he'd be playing NCAA hockey again.

"That was obviously part of the process, giving something like that up," Belonger said. "It was more talks with Young and I was just coming to have a little more fun."

When he found out the team was going Division I and he was going back, the first question he had was whether or not he would be able to play.

Quite simply, he questioned what kind of eligibility he would have. NCAA rules allow five years to complete four years of playing in the league, including any transfers. Belonger has used two years of eligibility at Northeastern and this season playing ACHA can count as a redshirt season. So to answer his question, he will begin next season as a redshirt junior with two more years of NCAA eligibility.

"Will I be a part of this?" he said to himself Tuesday.

Then once he found out that he would: "This opens up a whole new ballgame."

Ryan Belonger

The same goes for Schmidt. He is listed as a sophomore this season, but started his NCAA clock in 2012 at Ferris State. 2013-14, though it was only for two games, counts as his sophomore year, this season would be a redshirt season and next season will be his redshirt junior year.

Coach Greg Powers is well aware of their situation. He said he told each player on the team individually what was happening and remembers the look on both of the former NCAA skaters' faces.

"They literally feel like they won the lottery," Powers said. "Because when they came here, they came here to play ACHA hockey. And then a year goes by and they're right back in NCAA."

It is still unknown how many of the current Sun Devils will play NCAA hockey next season. Powers has an entire arsenal of potential Division I recruits ready to come to Tempe from whom he can make his squad. He said he has received more than 600 calls about players interested in coming.

One recruiting tool Powers will use is one that Schmidt and Belonger have experienced first-hand: the weather. While the northern and eastern parts of the country are covered in snow, Tempe, Arizona remains beautiful year-round.

"I went through four or five snowstorms in Boston in the last two years, and I can't really imagine that happening here," Belonger said. "That'll be a perk itself."

Not much is set in stone upon next year's roster, but Schmidt and Belonger may have a leg up on any incoming players to making the team.

"They're excited, they know what works needs to be put in order to be successful at that level," Powers said. "We're lucky to have them and have two guys like that on our roster already that knows what it takes."