Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Sortino’s field of dreams

Brandice Balschmiter couldn’t keep her emotions in check.

Maria Uminski/Collegian

After all, the former ace of the Massachusetts softball team’s pitching staff and current assistant coach has known UMass coach Elaine Sortino for most of her life.

From when she was 11 years old to now, Sortino has become more than just a coach to Balschmiter. Not only have the two grown close over the years, but their families have too. They exchange Christmas cards with one another and speak to each other incessantly.

So on Saturday morning, when a black curtain was removed at the bottom of the softball field’s scoreboard, revealing the words “Sortino Field” in black lettering on a white background in honor of her longtime coach, mentor and friend, it wasn’t possible for Balschmiter to hide her emotion.

“I will be honest,” Balschmiter said. “I broke out in tears.

“It’s just a very memorable and special moment. I can’t even explain how much it means to me.”

Such was the case for the more than 70 former players that returned to Amherst on Saturday, along with current players, family and fans – all of whom Sortino has touched in one way or another – as the field, formerly known as the UMass Softball Complex, was honored in her name.

For Sortino, the day wasn’t easy. She’s never been one to embrace spotlight and attention, and she would be the first to admit that. And as a creature of habit, she has spent the last 33 years preparing her team for any and all situations, but nothing could have truly prepared her for a moment like this one.

Photos by Maria Uminski/Collegian

UMass Director of Athletics John McCutcheon and assistant coach Kristi Stefanoni started the ceremony by giving the guest of honor praise before handing the microphone to Sortino, who was, as usual, heartfelt.

“So I say to my players, preparation equals peace of mind. No way today. Not for coach,” Sortino began.

“I’ve said many, many times that I’ve got the best job in the world. I believe that,” she continued. “I’ve been fortunate enough my entire life to be surrounded, and work with, and serve great people that have never been afraid to constantly raise the bar. … I love UMass softball, because it’s all of you, it’s all of you, and you know it’s true.

“Truth be told, my words are pathetically inadequate. I could never, ever express what this means to me that you have made it possible and for me to remain a part of this great place forever.”

Thirty-three years ago, it seemed like a pipe dream. Sortino walked on to an open field, which is now Garber Field, that had two dirt patches – one for a mound and one for home plate. There were no fences and the portable backstop that was used was even stolen on occasion.

In the 1990s, the program was awarded money via Title IX, which grants men’s and women’s athletic programs equal opportunity, to renovate the field. And in 2000, Sortino’s dream to construct a state-of-the-art softball facility was realized with the creation of the UMass Softball Complex.

The 1,167 wins, 23 Atlantic 10 championships and three Women’s College World Series appearances on Sortino’s résumé, earned her the honor of naming the field after her.

But that’s only where it begins. Sortino’s ability to bring in players and help them succeed not only on the field, but more importantly off the field, is where she truly measures her success. She’s coached 20 All-Americans, 18 A-10 Pitchers of the Year and 129 All-Conference players, but her real pride lies in watching them leave the dugout and succeed in their lives.

“It’s staggering,” Sortino said. “The incredible people who I’ve been able to share my life with, and I turn around and it’s mind-boggling. It’s unbelievable. I’m very, very lucky. I really mean it when I say I have the best job in the world, and I turn around and there it is.

“(They’re so successful). I mean, there are some great success stories, tons, among all of them. They’ve all gone out and made great contributions to life and I’m proud to be a part of them.”

Both former and current players said there wasn’t anyone any more deserving of the honor.

“She’s just so passionate, so dedicated and so competitive in the field,” said Whitney Mollica, who played at UMass from 2006-09. “I think she exemplifies everything that we hope to be in our own lives.”

“I am so appreciative and happy that this happened for her,” UMass outfielder Lindsey Webster said. “I couldn’t think of someone more deserving. She has truly inspired every single one of my teammates as well as all of the alum.

“She works her ass off – every single day. She goes home and works on what we’re going to do at practice, works on what we’re going to do in a game. And nothing is ever good enough, which is a good thing, because greatness is always changing as my coach always says and she demands the best from us and it’s only going to pay off in our future.”

A future that her coach will most certainly be a part of.

Stephen Hewitt can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.

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