Nikolaus, BA ’14, was a key contributor for the University of Mississippi women’s soccer team — a Division-I program — as a freshman in 2010.
But Nikolaus said she had “more downs than ups” her first season and just wasn’t generally happy at Ole Miss. When her grandfather died in the summer of 2011, Nikolaus had no desire to return to the school.
Instead, Nikolaus — who was born and raised in St. Louis — transferred to Webster University on a whim and joined the women’s soccer team. During her three years as a Gorlok, Nikolaus led Webster to a 47-15-1 overall record and a 23-2 conference record. The Gorloks captured two St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament titles during that span.
Nikolaus was a two-time All-Central Region honoree, three-time All-Conference first-team selection and was named both the SLIAC Player of the Year (2013) and SLIAC Tournament MVP (2012). But beyond the team and individual achievements, Webster soccer provided Nikolaus a chance to regain normalcy, to once again enjoy playing the game she’d always loved.
“Soccer is the one thing I know so well,” Nikolaus said. “It was easy for me to fall back into that from a therapeutic and stress-relief sense. It was easier to just jump on a team, especially with starting at a new school. I was able to play through the grief I was feeling from my grandpa’s death.”
Nikolaus said D-III soccer helps instill discipline and a strong work ethic, as players don’t have athletic scholarships to motivate them. She’s continued to use the lessons she learned as a Division-III athlete at her next stop — DePaul University in Chicago — where she’s pursuing a master’s degree in screenwriting.
“Division III prepares you more for life outside of college and outside of playing a collegiate sport, because you’re not relying on this other income,” Nikolaus said. “It makes you work harder for what you want and what you need. Some girls were playing (at Ole Miss) just so they could stay in school because they were getting money to play a sport. At Webster, these girls are playing because they love the game.”
Graf, who is preparing for her 16th season as coach of the Webster volleyball team, was a standout student-athlete in her own right. She played both volleyball and softball at D-III Monmouth College (Ill.) before doing the same at D-III Millikin University (Ill.). Millikin’s volleyball team qualified for the NCAA Tournament her senior season, which sticks out as a favorite moment during Graf’s collegiate career.
“I knew I always wanted to continue playing sports as long as I possibly could,” Graf said. “I did have some people looking at me at higher levels for softball, but I really didn’t want to walk away from volleyball. I had started volleyball a little later but really enjoyed playing that as well. So, to me, Division III was ideal because of the opportunity to play both sports.”
Graf said D-III sports afford student-athletes the opportunity to succeed in both athletics and academics while also giving back to the community. The Webster volleyball program has earned the AVCA (American Volleyball Coaches Association) Team Academic Award each of the past seven years for posting a team GPA above 3.30.
Volleyball players have donated their time during Webster Works Worldwide — a campus-wide community-service day now in its 22nd year — at the Mary Ryder home for several years. The Mary Ryder home serves low-income and disabled senior women. Graf and the Gorloks also seek out and participate in other community projects, such as putting on volleyball clinics for children with special needs every spring.
Graf encourages her student-athletes to take advantage of everything Webster has to offer, including its top-notch study-abroad program. Graf estimates about half of her players study abroad at some point during their college careers. And, as Graf successfully did, she advises her players to compete in multiple sports if they have the desire to do so.
Graf, who’s been a Division-III lifer, essentially, doesn’t envision that changing any time soon.
“I get asked often if I have any desire to move up the ranks, and I really don’t,” she said. “This is athletics in its purest form because the student-athletes here truly love the game. And they play for the love of the game. To me, that’s just very refreshing.”
Kurich, who recently completed his 10th season as coach of the nationally-ranked Webster baseball team, started his college playing career at Division-II Quincy University (Ill.). Though he enjoyed his time there, he wasn’t an everyday player for the Hawks. So, Kurich transferred to D-III Wartburg College (Iowa) to get that opportunity.
“I knew I was not going to play in the big leagues, and I just wanted to play and have the chance to play every day,” Kurich said. “I got exactly what I wanted out of Wartburg. I started every game, and we won three conference championships. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
The opportunity to win big has kept Kurich at the D-III level for the vast majority of his coaching career. Kurich, a six-time SLIAC Coach of the Year recipient, has compiled a 329-131 overall record and a 203-25 conference record during his decade at Webster. The Gorloks have qualified for the NCAA Tournament eight of the 10 years Kurich has been at the helm. Webster advanced to the eight-team College World Series three times in a four-year span from 2012 to 2015.
“The program is my baby now. It’s hard to leave something you’ve built up to where it is now,” Kurich said. “Also, this is where my family is. My wife has a job here; my kids are in school. More than anything, the reason I like Webster is we’ve got a chance — and there is going to come a day — when we’re going to win the College World Series. Webster is a place where I know we can be successful. We love it. We can win. That, to me, is a big attraction.”
Kilgallon, who is in his third year as Webster’s director of athletics and 20th year in D-III athletics overall, ran track at then-D-II (now D-I) Central Connecticut State University during his undergraduate career. Back then, Kilgallon said Division-III sports were not nearly as competitive as they are today. But that culture has shifted dramatically, and Kilgallon’s view of what college sports should be lines up with the Division-III philosophy.
“You have coaches and support staff who genuinely care about their student-athletes getting a great experience and degree, and they care about them as people,” Kilgallon said. “Whereas, for student-athletes at a higher level, you’re almost a commodity. It’s really tragic at the end of the day that you’re using them for athletics. If those kids don’t graduate, there’s a problem there.
“I like the purity of Division III, I like the student-athletes and I like the coaches. The coaches are not getting rich off it, but they’re doing things for the development of students. It’s really genuine. It’s satisfying. It’s my values — it’s what I believe athletics should be.”
From a competition standpoint, Kilgallon points to postseason matches as evidence of the significance of D-III sports to participating athletes and coaches. At the conclusion of a SLIAC Tournament soccer game his first year at Webster, Kilgallon vividly recalls seeing half the players euphoric because their team was moving on, while the other half was devastated because their season was over.
“I’ve seen the skill level. I’ve seen the dedication. In Division-III athletics, the level has increased unbelievably,” Kilgallon said. “We’ve got talented kids at this level. We have kids transfer in from D-I and D-II — they gave up their scholarships.
“I would challenge anybody: Come to a Division-III game. I guarantee you that you’re going to walk out and say, ‘I’m coming back.’”