Legendary UMass softball coach Elaine Sortino dies after battle with cancer

By Nick Canelas

Photo by Maria Uminski/Collegian File Photo

Elaine Sortino, the longtime head coach of the Massachusetts softball team, whose impact both on and off the field knew no bounds throughout her legendary career, died Sunday night after a nearly two-year battle with cancer. She was 64.

“We have lost a very special and amazing person in Elaine,” UMass Director of Athletics John McCutcheon said in a statement released by the University on Monday. “We loved her tremendously. She was a true gift. It’s hard to envision UMass without her and there is no way we can express the loss that we feel.

“She impacted so many people during her life and was a true inspiration who left an indelible mark on us all. Not only has the University of Massachusetts lost one of its brightest stars, but so too has the entire softball world.”

For over three decades, Sortino was a pioneer in turning the UMass softball program into a national power, amassing 1,185 victories, 23 Atlantic 10 titles, 21 NCAA Tournament appearances and three trips to the Women’s College World Series.

Sortino was the third-winningest active Division I coach at the end of the 2013 season, her 34th at UMass, and she places seventh all-time in the Division I ranks.

The Yonkers, N.Y., native graduated from Oneonta State in 1971 and earned her master’s degree from the University of Bridgeport in 1973. Sortino coached UMass volleyball from 1979 to 1986 and posted a 218-134-1 record. In addition to coaching, she also served as an associate athletic director and the department’s senior administrator.

She is a member of the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame and the Oneonta State Hall of Fame.

Sortino coached a Honda Award (National Player of the Year) winner, an Olympic gold medalist, three United States and Canadian National Team members, 21 All-America selections, 15 A-10 Players of the Year, 18 A-10 Pitchers of the Year, nine A-10 Rookies of the Year and 133 all-conference selections over the course of her career.

The UMass Softball Complex, which Sortino was a driving force in constructing through fundraising, was built in 2000. It was renamed Sortino Field last fall in her honor.

On April 4, 2012, Sortino informed her team that she had been diagnosed with a form of cancer. But she continued to coach from the UMass dugout for the remainder of that season and last season despite the physical toll her cancer and the treatments she received placed on her body.

If Sortino’s spirits were in any way diminished by her illness, she rarely showed it.

On Oct. 6, 2012, more than 70 former players returned to Amherst for a special dedication ceremony that unveiled the new name of the UMass softball field. With current players, coaches, family, friends and fans on hand, a heartfelt Sortino reflected then on her remarkable career.

“I’ve said many, many times that I’ve got the best job in the world. I believe that,” she said. “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.

“It’s staggering,” she later said that day. “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.”

Sortino leaves behind legions of loved ones, who are grieving the loss of a woman whose deep impact on their lives has persisted for years.

Katie Bettencourt, a former UMass outfielder, spent five seasons with Sortino from 2009 to 2013 and witnessed her strength both in health and as she battled her sickness.

“She’s just an incredible woman. I just have never met anyone as incredible as she is,” Bettencourt said. “I got to spend five years with her, and I got to see her and play for her when she was healthy, you know what I mean, so I was lucky enough to see her healthy. She’s just such a fighter.

“Every day, I know she was sick, I know she did not feel good, but every day she came. The only times she didn’t come to practice was when she was at chemo(therapy). I can’t get over just how much strength she had and how strong she was. And it’s just very inspiring.”

Sara Plourde, a former All-American pitcher who graduated in 2012, said Sortino inspired her in ways unparalleled by anyone else.

“She has affected me as a person overall,” Plourde said. “She was probably one of the most influential people in my life. I’ve never met someone who was just so strong-willed. Everything she said I believed and she always knew. I would say she was the most inspirational person I’ve ever met and most motivational person too.”

Former UMass field hockey coach Pam Hixon shared an office with Sortino at one point in their respective coaching tenures, and got the chance to see her personality come to life in numerous ways.

“She was really fun,” Hixon said. “Elaine had an excellent sense of humor. She could be dry or outright funny and was very captivating as a personality, so people migrated to Elaine because she had all the qualities of being incredibly popular and being able to share lots of different facets of her life with different groups of people. She was truly amazing.”

It’s been over a decade since former UMass pitcher Danielle Henderson has thrown a pitch in a Minutewoman uniform. Following her college years, Henderson won a gold medal for the United States at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and then returned to collegiate softball as a coach at Stanford. After all this time, Henderson says she continues to draw inspiration from her times with Sortino.

“I feel like I’m one of the luckiest people out there to be able to play for Elaine Sortino,” Henderson said. “She is one of a kind, and I’ve always known how lucky I was. I’ve been out in the world of softball a long time and come across a lot of people, and it was an honor to play for someone who could push you to be better than you ever thought you could be on a daily basis.”

UMass senior outfielder Lindsey Webster played three seasons under Sortino, who she says had a major influence on her decision to move 3,000 miles away from Northridge, Calif., to come play ball in Amherst. The close friendship she formed with Sortino over the years never gave her reason to think twice about her decision.

“She will never be replaced in my heart,” Webster said, holding back tears. “She was a remarkable human being. Other than being a legendary coach – truly legendary – I don’t even know who has that kind of legacy, she was a good human being. She was one of the funniest people I ever met. She was hilarious, not that many people know that about her. She had a great personality and she was truly one of a kind.”

“Coach touched people’s lives,” she continued. “She was a life changer.”

Memorial arrangements for Sortino will be held Thursday and Friday, with visitation hours on Thursday from 4 to 8 p.m. at Douglas Funeral Home at 87 North Pleasant Street in Amherst. The funeral will be held Friday at 10 a.m. at St. Brigid’s Parish Community at 122 North Pleasant Street in Amherst. Both services will be open to the public.

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