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May 7, 2016

Kristi Stefanoni establishing her place as first new UMass softball coach in decades

Collegian File Photo

Collegian File Photo

Kristi Stefanoni’s love for the game of softball can be traced all the way back to when she was just 5 years old, when her grandfather first put a softball in her hand.

She can still remember going outside and playing catch for an hour or two a day, whether it was with her father or grandfather, learning about the game she would develop a great passion for later on in her life.

“He taught me how to do pretty much everything, whether it was pitching, hitting or fielding ground balls,” Stefanoni said of her grandfather. “He was the one that brought softball to my attention.”

A native of Columbus, N.J., Stefanoni attended Northern Burlington Country Regional High School, where she was a four-year varsity player and led her school to its first state championship as a senior. She received all-conference honors, as well as all-area and All-South Jersey honors, and was inducted into the Northern Burlington Athletic Hall of Fame in March 2013.

Stefanoni had multiple schools in mind when thinking about college, but knew nothing about the Massachusetts softball program. That was until she was spotted by Elaine Sortino at a national tournament.

Although she may not have been familiar with the UMass program, Stefanoni could tell from Sortino’s tone the first time they spoke that they had something in common: the desire to win.

“My immediate reaction to her voice on the phone was, ‘Wow this woman is intense and is dead set on winning for her program,’” said Stefanoni, who committed to UMass in October 2001. “All it took for me was to meet her in person and to go up to campus and I was completely sold.”

It was during her freshman year that  she knew she was going to be there for a really long time. She wanted to become a coach when she was done playing.

“It was just one of those feelings where you feel super comfortable when you’re on campus and enjoy being around the people you are around,” Stefanoni said. “I came from a winning high school program and a winning travel ball team, and I knew Elaine was known as a great teacher of the game, so I knew I would get better with her.”

What Stefanoni didn’t realize at the time was the special relationship she was about to form with Sortino over the next decade as a player, assistant and friend.

An unbreakable bond

After playing for Sortino for four years, Stefanoni immediately joined the Minutewomen’s coaching staff. Those next seven years brought her even closer to Sortino.

So when Sortino was first diagnosed with cancer in 2011, Stefanoni took it harder than most people did. For her, it wasn’t just another old college coach getting sick. It was family.

“Elaine to me was mom away from home,” she said. “She had always been a mother figure to me and people would always joke that when they saw us together she treated me like her daughter and I always treated her like my mom.”

That was just the kind of relationship they had. It was two people who came from different backgrounds that had an understanding for each other and would develop a long-lasting friendship.

When Stefanoni talks to people about the relationship the two of them had, she always tells people that when she was 18 years old and left for school, Sortino basically  picked up where her own mom left off.

“(Sortino) definitely played a major role in raising me and teaching me what to do in order to become a better person,” Stefanoni said. “Not only did she teach me how to be an athlete and coach, but also how to be a better individual.”

At the time of Sortino’s diagnosis, imagining life without her beloved mentor was something Stefanoni never thought she would have to do, whether it was athletically or personally. Sortino was the one that was there for her whenever she had issues, and to see that slowly slipping away was heartbreaking for her.

“It was tough for me to watch somebody that you love and care about so much go through that from the very beginning to the very end,” Stefanoni said. “The entire time all I could think about was ‘she can’t go anywhere, there’s no way.’ I always thought she was untouchable.”

Unfortunately, nobody is untouchable, and when Sortino died in August 2013, Stefanoni knew it was her time to lead.

A new role

On Feb. 21, 2014, a new era had officially begun. A new individual was leading UMass softball in its first game of the season, and that individual was Stefanoni.

Stefanoni was hired as interim head coach by UMass Athletic Director John McCutcheon back in late August, and she was  humbled to know she was taking over a position that had been held by Sortino since 1980.

Accepting this position as head coach was a bittersweet moment for Stefanoni. She was fulfilling her goal of becoming a head coach, but not in the way she had hoped for.

“I was very honored to be able to continue on the tradition and legacy of UMass softball,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s not the way I would have wanted it to happen, but it was something that I take extremely great pride in the fact that (McCutcheon) felt comfortable enough that he could give me this job.”

Already 17 games into the season, Stefanoni is trying to incorporate her experiences under Sortino into her own coaching style in hopes of reigniting a program that once won 16 consecutive Atlantic 10 championships.

“What comes out of my mouth is probably what would come out of hers,” Stefanoni said. “I just say it a little differently. She taught me to be very calm and I am very grateful that I was able to learn from such a successful, Hall-of-Fame coach.”

Off to a slow start in her first year, Stefanoni believes that the Minutewomen’s 3-14 record is not indicative of the way they have been playing.

“We’re just missing that one inning where we tend to let the other team get away with it,” she said. “Whether it’s our defense or we just aren’t hitting, if we can eliminate that one bad inning, we’ll win games.”

Another thing she told her team is that with conference playing starting soon, they now have a clean slate.

“To me, this is a brand new team. The way that I coach them is gonna be new. I am reinventing players and different ways that we can do things,” Stefanoni said. “What I hope to accomplish is as weeks go on and conference play goes on, we get better each and every game at something, and in May, we are where we set out to be.”

Jason Kates can be reached at jkates@umass.edu.

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