By Tris Wykes
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – Justin Devoid is the son of a commercial painter and as such, he’s spent many a day wielding a brush, carrying ladders and touching up spaces under the eaves.
The 2013 Hartford High graduate’s current gig is a whole lot better.
Devoid is the head coach of the Upper Valley Nighthawks summer baseball team, based at the Maxfield Sports Complex off Route 5 and a little south of the Upper Valley Aquatics Center. The wooden-bat circuit is packed with NCAA Division I players focused on fun and improvement and Devoid, who played six games for the Nighthawks in 2016, is experiencing his own learning curve.
“I was pretty nervous for the first practice,” said Devoid, whose team began the week 12-8 and a game back in the Northern Division midway through the season. “I’m a young guy without a ton of experience at this level, but I told the players we’ll grow together.
“Every single day I’m learning something by reading books, listening to podcasts and talking to these guys about their college programs.”
Less than a year ago, Devoid was Hartford High’s certified athletic trainer, the field in which he majored while playing baseball at Division III Colby-Sawyer College in New London. Now, he’s doing his best to be a “transformational, democratic leader” for roughly 25 players from the likes of Kansas State, Boston College and Creighton.
It was while coaching teens for White River Junction’s entry in the Vermont Covid League last summer, however, that the 26-year old decided to switch careers. Only a month earlier, he’d concluded his second season as head coach at Springfield High, although the Cosmos’ 2020 schedule was wiped out by Covid-19.
“I had so much fun with that group and in the summer,” said Devoid, who graduated from Colby-Sawyer in 2017 before working three years as a trainer. “It was much more enjoyable that doing athletic training and worrying about having to call an athlete’s parents with bad news.”
Devoid found it hard to detach himself professionally while tending to an injured competitor and he confronted anxiety during practices and games, worrying about what might be coming. He was also frustrated by the intersection of his healing skills and the school day’s structure. When the final bell rang, he was inundated with athletes needing his time, but had only half an hour before most practices began.
“You’e waiting for something to happen; it’s kind of a vulture culture,” Devoid said. “It became like they were all my kids and I worried how injuries could affect their careers and lives.”
Last summer was not an ideal time to be looking for a coaching job. Covid had stopped many collegiate athletic departments in their tracks and most jobs starting in the fall had long since been filled. After a number of rejections, Devoid discovered a graduate assistant’s position at Division III St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., not far from the Canadian border.
Devoid was hired two weeks later, after participating in several online interviews. He moved north in August and became the second man on a two-man coaching staff under interim boss Kenny Collins, who’d been the team’s graduate assistant the year before. The program isn’t budgeted for a fulltime assistant, so the graduate assistant essentially fills that role.
St. Lawrence was 12-12 this spring, its best record in seven years, and narrowly missed the Liberty League tournament. While studying for his master’s of education degree in sports-related leadership, Devoid also had secondary duties such as working the gym’s front desk, scheduling and officiating intramural games and helping with event management.
“A lot of the (St. Lawrence) team assistants are graduate assistants and that’s what the department thrives on,” Devoid said.
At bigger universities, GA’s are often able to concentrate on their particular sport. While those positions are coveted, the ones farther down the ladder allow for broader experiences and a chance to discover which athletic department activities one does and doesn’t enjoy.
Devoid is on track to earn his degree next year and plans to search for a spot on a college baseball coaching staff far away from the Upper Valley, perhaps on the west coast or in the southeast.
“I really want to work for a coach who’s been there for a while,” Devoid said. “If I get a chance to come back (to the Nighthawks), then I can give the players an even better summer.”
By all accounts, the current season is going well. Devoid presented his playing and coaching experience honestly and openly to the players and said he was there to help them, not drive them. Modern, summer baseball is not the place to be a martinet, which plays to Devoid’s pleasant personality.
“Yes, he’s a players’ coach but he’s not goofing around and being a knucklehead,” said Upper Valley general manager Noah Crane, who lost his original coaches in May when they declined to be vaccinated for Covid, per NECBL rules.
“Justin has that perfect marriage of likeability and professionalism. I want people who are young and hungry to learn and what better way to do it than in a low-stress environment?”
Crane first hired the 6-foot-4 Devoid as his replacement hitting coach. As he looked about, however, Crane became convinced that he wasn’t going to find a better head-coaching prospect on short notice. He later hired a pitching coach to back up Devoid.
“The players want someone they can relate to,” Crane said. “You spend every day with someone for two straight months and if they’re stiff or too intense and not enjoyable, I don’t care what your resume looks like, it’s just not going to work.”
Veteran Nighthawks pitcher Jordy Allard, who once played on a Hartford American Legion team with Devoid and who coached alongside him last summer, said his friend’s unassuming personality hides a wealth of knowledge. Until working with and playing for him, the hurler didn’t fully appreciate Devoid’s maturity and feel for the game.
“He knows we’ve had long, hard seasons and he’s kind of relaxed and lets us know if we need help, he’s here,” said Allard, who starred at Babson (Mass.) University and is planning to play his final college season at the University of Richmond (Va.). “But he’s not going to be on us to get better. We need to do that ourselves.
“He knows exactly when to talk and when to let kids figure things out themselves. We’re not at schools with our coach down our throat and playing for our scholarships.”
All the same, Devoid is deeply aware of his relative inexperience and determined to accelerate the learning process. He sees himself as a sounding board more than a director.
“I just know there’s a lot more that I can learn and grow on and provide for them,” he said earnestly. “The biggest obstacle is lot of these guys played at higher level than I did, so reaching them in any capacity can be difficult.
“It’s really important not to push people in the summer. You do that too much and they might leave or you’ll have someone on the bench who’s negative and that spreads.”
Said Crane: “The thing I appreciate most is his humility and desire to get better. I think that’s so important, to have someone who understands they’re here to learn. He’s a sponge learning from the players and me and by experience.”
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