As a senior at Centralia High School in southern Illinois, Cody Stevenson wasn’t planning on playing college baseball. He was plenty good enough, sure. With his track speed, Stevenson could play center field, steal bases and put pressure on an opposing infield at an elite level.
Schools were interested, too. A Division-I university in Michigan wanted Stevenson’s athletic services, as did a handful of other institutions. The community college in Centralia — Kaskaskia — was a landing spot for many of Stevenson’s teammates and friends.
Baseball could have helped put Stevenson through college. But that wasn’t his heart. No, that was set on joining the military, becoming a Marine.
That all changed when Stevenson’s high school hitting instructor, Derek Harlan, introduced Stevenson to Bill Kurich, who recently completed his 10th season as Webster University’s baseball coach. Harlan and Kurich were college baseball teammates at Quincy University, so Harlan knew firsthand the type of person Kurich was and the type of program he ran at Webster.
Stevenson started talking to Kurich about the Webster program and how Kurich likes the game to be played. It meshed well with the way Stevenson wanted to play. He decided to take the next step and pay a visit to the Webster campus.
“I don’t want to sound corny or cheesy, but it was love at first sight,” Stevenson said. “It’s a beautiful campus, very diverse. Coming from a small town — just being able to see how broad everything is and see what I could be at Webster — it was just amazing. It was hard to pass up.”
Four years later, Stevenson, BA ’14, graduated with a degree in sociology and one of the most decorated careers in Webster baseball history. He ranks first in the Webster record books in games played (180), games started (175), at-bats (636), runs scored (206), walks (100) and triples (13). His 165 career stolen bases place him more than 100 steals better than the second-best finisher in Gorlok history. He was a four-time first-team All-Conference selection.
In addition to his individual success, Stevenson and his 2012 and ’13 teammates made runs to the eight-team Division-III College World Series. The Gorloks finished fifth nationally both years out of approximately 385 teams. Webster went 140-50 overall and 82-10 in conference play during Stevenson’s four years as a Gorlok.
“Every time I look back on it, there’s not a thing I would change,” Stevenson said. “Just to be able to say I got my degree from Webster University — it’s such a well-known university. And then on top of that, I got to play at the college level in a sport I grew up wanting to make a life out of. I made nothing but memories and the best of friendships on and off the field with it.”
Baseball got Stevenson in the door at Webster, while the university’s strong academics and a multitude of other factors pushed him through it. That’s the rule – not the exception – for baseball players and, more generally, student-athletes who attend Webster. Kurich estimates 95 percent of his players, past and current, came to Webster because of baseball.
“We are recruiting them specifically as baseball players,” Kurich said. “We’re recruiting regionally and nationally, so a lot of these kids have never heard of Webster. But they may have heard of Webster baseball. And if baseball has the opportunity to open the door for them to get into a great academic institution and they realize what a great place this is, then baseball has really done its job. Not only for the young man, but for the school as well. Academically, they’re choosing between a number of schools, and they’re picking Webster as an academic institution and a baseball entity.”
Kurich’s estimates line up with the research Scott Kilgallon, Webster’s director of athletics, has done on the topic. Kilgallon found 93 percent of the Gorloks’ student-athletes were recruited to the school by a Webster coach. That figure is significantly higher than the NCAA Division-III national average of approximately two-thirds.
Sports are, overwhelmingly, the principle reason student-athletes hear about and ultimately choose to attend Webster. During the 2009-10 academic year, 192 students participated in athletics at Webster. Six years later, that number has ballooned to 324 students, a 59 percent enrollment increase.
As athletic programs like the baseball team succeed at the national level, visibility for Webster improves and additional recruiting opportunities become available. Kilgallon parlayed the Gorloks’ College World Series accomplishments into hosting the Central Regional of the D-III Baseball Championship, a task the university took on for the first time in May 2016 at GCS Ballpark, Webster’s home facility.
Developing a top-notch Division-III baseball program has made Kurich’s recruiting job a bit easier. “Success breeds success,” Kilgallon said. “These blue-chippers are inquiring, and they’re taking a good look. They know they’re going to have the probability of advancing to something like the NCAA Tournament year-in and year-out.”
Stevenson and his teammates advanced to the NCAA Tournament each of the four years he was at Webster. Now a deputy for the Collier County Sheriff’s Office in Naples, Fla., Stevenson said the discipline Kurich and his staff instilled in him helped mold him into the man he is today.
“Kurich makes sure you follow the rules that were laid down,” Stevenson said. “Those rules just weren’t you need to do this because it’s going to make you a better ballplayer. No, his rules were you need to do this because it’s going to make you a better man. It’s going to make you a successful man.”
Kurich strives to identify players in the recruiting process who crave structure, who feed on high expectations. When prospective student-athletes commit to play baseball at Webster, they’re also committing to participate in offseason workouts with Matt Saitz, Webster’s strength and conditioning coach, and to play summer baseball against top-level competition across the country.
“They understand they may never play professionally,” Kurich said. “But we’re looking for 35 guys who want to walk out of here and say, ‘Well, I did everything I possibly could to be the best player I could have been in college. I had a great college experience. I had a great baseball experience. And I got a great degree.’ That’s what it’s all about.”