Does Sortino belong in UMass Athletics Hall of Fame?

By Michael Wood

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The University of Massachusetts softball team has only known four head coaches since its inception in 1975, and three of those came in the first five years of its existence.

Jean Follansbee, Diane Thompson and Chet Gladchuck combined to go 83-36-1 when UMass softball was still a budding program. The early success was rare in the athletic world, but it wasn’t until 1980 that the program took its first step towards becoming a dynasty.

Elaine Sortino assumed head coaching duties for UMass in 1980, taking over for Gladchuck, who coached the squad the year prior. Gladchuck went 26-2-1 during the 1979 season. No small feat and a tough act for Sortino to follow.

But follow, she did.

A native of Yonkers, N.Y., Sortino coached at Yale for two seasons before joining UMass. When she was hired, she actually coached two varsity sports, serving as the Minutewomen’s head volleyball coach in addition to her softball duties. From 1979-1986, she posted a 218-134-1 record on the court, according to the UMass Athletics archives.

In her first season, Sortino kept the tradition alive, coaching the Minutewomen to a 23-3 record and an Eastern Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (EAIAW) title. The squad lost in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) tournament, but since then Sortino has established herself as one of the nation’s best collegiate softball coaches and the program has grown steadily every year.

If there’s one thing that shows throughout Sortino’s career, it’s that she’s proven to be a winner. She knows what it takes to get the best performance out of her team, and she’s created culture of winning within the softball program.

While there’s no doubt Sortino has built the program up to where it is today, is she one of the school’s best? Does she belong in the UMass Hall of Fame?

Over her 31 seasons at UMass, Sortino has tallied a 1,130-470-6 record. She’s been to the Women’s College World Series three times, she’s taken teams to the NCAA Super Regional round on four separate occasions and she’s been to the NCAA Regional tournament 19 times. Of those regional appearances, her teams have left with winning records seven times.

She’s also posted 23 30-plus-win seasons, nine 40-win years and one historic year where her team won more than 50 games. Perhaps the most impressive stat is that in 31 years of coaching the Minutewomen, Sortino has never had a losing season.

Sounds like a Hall of Fame resume to me, but let’s remember one thing; Sortino has always had great athletes at her disposal, and it’s a lot easier to coach when you have some of the best players in the country playing for you.

Since the program began, way back under Follansbee, the team has only seen two losing seasons and those came in UMass’s first two years. We’re not talking about some small-time Division III school here, UMass softball is a big deal, and it has been for a long, long time.

UMass has never had a talent shortage since Sortino has been the coach, but talent can only get you so far. It doesn’t mean anything without work and practice, and that’s where Sortino’s efforts really shine.

The only way to truly measure the success of a coach isn’t by the players she recruits as freshmen, the number of wins she’s recorded or her overall record. Coaching for 30-plus seasons should lead most coaches to a significant number of wins. Instead, the only way to measure it is by how much her players have improved under her tutelage.

Most coaches say they don’t care about winning, instead opting to throw out the age-old copout of “as long as we try our best, we don’t care about winning.” But let’s be real for a second, of all the coaches who say it doesn’t matter, how many do you believe? I can count them on one hand, and those individuals are true coaches.

I covered the Minutewomen last spring, so I can say with firsthand knowledge that Sortino is more concerned with her players’ improvement than she is about wins and losses. Sure, her 22 Atlantic 10 titles and 20 NCAA appearances are impressive, and yes, six nominations to the Division I National Fastpitch Coaches Association Northeast Coaching Staff of the Year is a great honor, but it’s not what comes first in Sortino’s approach. No, it’s her players.

Take away victories, championships and awards and most coaches aren’t left with much. Sortino isn’t most coaches. She’s coached two Olympians, 28 players to All-American status, 13 A-10 Players of the Year, 17 A-10 Pitchers of the Year, eight A-10 Rookies of the Year and 120 more to All-Conference nominations.

Let’s take some recent names as examples. Pitchers Danielle Henderson, Brandice Balschmitter and Sara Plourde weren’t among the best in the nation before Sortino helped mold them.

After four seasons under her teaching, Balschmitter owns the saves (six), appearances (178), games started (153), complete games (137), innings pitched (1089) and walks allowed (262) records; Plourde owns the strikeouts-per-inning record (12.08) and is on the cusp of breaking the all-time strikeout record, which Henderson achieved. Henderson is also No. 1 all-time in earned run average (0.71).

In 1999, Henderson received the Honda Award, given to the nation’s most outstanding player, and later, in 2000, she won a gold medal with the United States during the Summer Olympics.

It’s true that each player who’s passed through the UMass softball program had talent when they arrived, but without Sortino, who’s to say how their athletic careers might have panned out.

So, is Sortino a Hall of Famer? I’ll let you decide for yourself. As for me, whenever she decides to put down her clipboard, it’s an easy answer.

She’s got my vote.

Michael Wood is a guest Collegian columnist. He can be reached [email protected] and on Twitter @MCWsports.