It's a warm evening in St. Louis, uncharacteristic weather for fall conference tournaments. The Webster University women's soccer team had just defeated the Fontbonne Griffins to secure their 13th conference title at Worldwide Technology Soccer Park.
By now, the pictures have been taken—awards distributed. The field sits still as fog from the Meramec River creeps in. Blackness descends when two towering light fixtures go blank, signaling day's end for those at Soccer Park.
However, under the lights and on the cover of night, sits Webster Athletics Sports Information Director Niel DeVasto. A blue glow emits as he clicks through window after window on his laptop: Twitter's posted. Record's updated. Story's up. For DeVasto, his checklist of duties is second nature—a routine he's been following since he took the position in 2009.
DeVasto looks up. Clouds mask what would otherwise be a full moon illuminating the dark field. But darkness is no stranger to him. In fact, DeVasto was there before the lights had ever shown, fans ever cheered, records ever broken—before there ever was an athletics department.
|DeVasto (second from the left) playing volleyball during his senior year|
His time at Webster is one that encompasses many lives. DeVasto's first coming as a student in the fall of 1977. Fresh from St. Louis Community College at Meramec, he came to Webster College in pursuit of a degree in journalism before switching to public administration.
During his studies, DeVasto volunteered in the admissions department, which ultimately led to his first and only full-time position outside Webster's halls: Admissions Counselor at Fontbonne College.
DeVasto spent just one year at the Catholic-based institution, but not without, what he considers to be, a footprint on Fontbonne's athletics department.
"Like Webster, Fontbonne was a Catholic women's college that went co-ed," he says, "But they were 90% female."
The school was struggling to shake its women's only mentality. To increase male presence on campus, DeVasto proposed adding a men's soccer program. The idea would see twenty men enroll at Fontbonne, each receiving a scholarship that reduced tuition by half.
"The Dean of Students laughed at me," he remembers about his pitch to the administration. "Lo and behold, a couple years later [after leaving], Fontbonne announces they're starting a men's soccer program. Guess what? They're giving out twenty half-tuition scholarships.
"I'm not saying I started the program there, but it sure was my idea," DeVasto chuckles.
|DeVasto (top row, first from right) with Webster's first men's soccer team|
On top of it all, the school lacked activities. The University Center had yet to exist, and there were few options to get students involved outside of the classroom. Intramurals were offered, which included a pool and billiards league, but DeVasto still found it hard to sell to prospective students.
"If somebody was interested in education, which was a strong program for us, and they were either looking at us or Maryville College," he continues, "Maryville had sports. They had basketball. They had soccer. We were losing students because of that."
With the St. Louis region under DeVasto's recruiting space, he was eager to find a solution to bring in-town residents to Webster. Thus, began a chain of events, from pitching sports to the administration in the winter of 1983 to interviewing nearby colleges on what made athletic programs successful.
By speaking to Athletic Directors from Parks Air College and Maryville, DeVasto learned the ins and outs of collegiate sports. Concepts, such as purchasing uniforms and establishing venues, were all new to the admissions representative. However, it required a quick learning curve as DeVasto's plan was approved within a few months.
Armed with a staff of part-time coaches, Webster University entered the collegiate sports scene in the fall of 1984. The department featured men and women's basketball, men and women's tennis, men's soccer, and women's volleyball. A matchup would typically feature Sanford-Brown College, Concordia Seminary, Parks Air, or Logan College of Chiropractic.
Venues were difficult to come by for some of the newly minted Webster teams. The basketball and volleyball teams rented gym-space at Plymouth Junior High School, across the street from Webster Hall, for its first year of existence.
"It was a square with a gym in the middle. It wasn't in great shape, so we had to have a company come in and redo the floor," explains DeVasto. "The locker rooms were kind of spooky. They were dark and dank, but we repainted one and left the other one for opposing teams to use."
Webster Soccer saw its home field bounce from Blackburn Park to the Knights of Columbus Field, located just behind what is currently Imo's Pizza at the intersection of Old Orchard and Big Bend.
"There were big oak trees, and the branches would extend far enough over the goal. I'm standing on the sideline and Maryville head coach John Renaud says, 'Niel, you think those branches are going to be a problem?' And there were several times where the ball would come in and hit those branches," DeVasto laughs. "We had to endure some embarrassment along the way."
|DeVasto (top row, first from left) with Webster's second-ever men's soccer team|
Over the course of the next three decades, embarrassment would lessen and prestige would rise for the department as it joined NCAA Division III and became a founding member of the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. The number of Gorlok sports increased to seven with eight more teams, as well as a co-ed cheerleading squad, joining the frame. The university entered deals with GCS Ballpark and Soccer Park to provide first-class facilities.
DeVasto, who had been juggling roles between admissions and athletics, stepped away from sports to serve thirteen years as Director of Undergraduate Admissions, where he oversaw freshman class numbers spike from 85 to 490.
He returned to athletics in 2009 to begin his stint as Sports Information Director. During his time as a bookkeeper, DeVasto accumulated hundreds of stories, witnessed dozens of conference championships, and managed sports information for a pair of NCAA regional tournaments.
|DeVasto and his son, Daniel, running stats during a basketball game|
Orange lights flicker as DeVasto approaches his red Toyota Sienna in a nearly empty parking lot at Soccer Park. The only ones that remain beside him are the facilities crew and Director of Athletics Scott Kilgallon, who looks around for any straggling student-athletes. There's an undeniable calm in the air even though it was filled with joy and excitement just moments prior.
The women's team will presumably play elsewhere for the NCAA Championship, meaning that this was the last home game of the season. For DeVasto, however, it isn't just the last game. As he drives off, he not only bids farewell to another season but to something much greater—a department he'd seen built from the ground up.
In his time at Webster Athletics, DeVasto has seen countless student-athletes don the Blue and Gold. He's seen the likes of Gorlok greats, such as Jeff Reis and Jenny Howard, ink their names in the record books. Every one of them leaving a mark on their program that will stand the test of time.
When DeVasto leaves the field for the final time, he can be sure that his legacy extends beyond the lines painted on the field and further than time on the scoreboard will ever go.
"Students have comfort in knowing that Webster has teams they can be proud of and are competing at the collegiate level. And I'm very happy to have been a part of that."
AD Scott Kilgallon presents DeVasto with a jersey