It was May 4, 2012, and the Massachusetts softball team was in the midst of the longest game in team history.
UMass and Fordham were tied 1-1 in the top of the 17th inning and the Minutewomen had a runner on third base with one out.
Outfielder Katie Bettencourt stood in her usual spot in the dugout next to UMass coach Elaine Sortino, simply because she liked to pick the brain of the legendary coach.
With Teea Rogers coming to the plate, Sortino turned towards Bettencourt and the rest of the Minutewomen for their thoughts on a plan to push the go-ahead run across the plate.
“I’m thinking about doing a suicide squeeze here, gang, what does everyone think about that?” Sortino asked.
“We’re all like looking at each other, like, ‘Sure coach, whatever you say,’” Bettencourt recalled. “And sure enough, she calls it, and we won the game in the Bronx in 17 innings.”
That’s just one of the countless memories Bettencourt has from her five years playing for Sortino, who died Sunday, Aug. 18, after a nearly two-year battle with cancer.
In her 34 years of coaching at UMass, Sortino impacted the numerous people she grew close to, whether it was players, colleagues or friends.
Many of these people have endless tales that exemplify her personality on and off the softball field, and some shared these memories with the Collegian after her death.
“Basically as a friend and colleague she was fantastic,” former UMass field hockey coach Pam Hixon said. “Everybody who knows Elaine probably would describe her as incredibly intense, which she was, and a great technical coach. She could pick out the things on the team that were the strengths and the weaknesses and focus in on those weaknesses so that her team and her individuals could become stronger.”
Sortino and Hixon were particularly close. The two shared an office for a number of years and spent a majority of their working hours together. Both had two assistants, so with six different personalities taking over a room, Hixon said there was plenty of fun to be had.
“We looked at each other across two desks like every day,” Hixon said. “A long period of time seemed very short because we loved it. … it was an office we got work done in, but certainly it was an office we had fun in and (we) enjoyed going to work every single day.”
As a coach, Sortino was considered fierce, tough and highly demanding of her players, especially her pitchers.
She bred the likes of Danielle Henderson and Sara Plourde into an Olympic gold medalist and a school career strikeout leader, respectively. And it appeared with each generation of pitchers, the talent only improved.
“(During) pitching workouts, me being a pitcher, I spent every day with her,” said Plourde, a 2012 graduate. “We’d have days where we would just cry laughing because something was so funny, and we’d have days where we would just fight because I was being stubborn because I couldn’t pitch, I was having a hard time pitching.”
Henderson’s relationship with Sortino was particularly unique. Now, the 1999 UMass graduate hopes to have a similar impact on people the way her mentor did.
After three seasons as an assistant coach at Ohio State and Stanford, Henderson is now returning to Amherst to take on the same role at UMass. Wherever she goes, though, she said she applies what she learned from Sortino to this day when working with her own players.
“I’m coaching today and I strive to be like she was,” Henderson said. “Whenever I think of things I think, ‘What would Elaine do? How would Elaine treat the players?’ That’s all I ever tried to do.
“I’m just trying to give to people what she gave to me and I think that’s the best way you could honor someone.”
Sortino loved her colleagues much the same way she loved her players.
Greg Cannella, who will be entering his 20th season as the UMass men’s lacrosse coach this spring, said that he and Sortino had a “supportive” relationship and would discuss a variety of topics including coaching, recruiting and family. He also admired her “old school” style of coaching because he could relate to it.
It’s especially hard for Cannella to forget Sortino’s reaction when he was named head coach of the Minutemen in 1994.
“When I became the head coach she was one of the first to congratulate me. I can remember she said, ‘Go home and take your wife out to dinner. Enjoy it now.’ Because she knew what was coming for me,” Cannella said with a quiet chuckle.
Hixon not only knew Sortino the coach, but also the great Italian cook and talented wood-worker.
“I will never forget she and I would go to Rafters (restaurant in Amherst), and on a beer napkin she would design her next house, what piece of furniture she was going to build, sketch out and draw things and ask questions about how we thought it would look,” Hixon said.
Through everything that Sortino was, for hundreds of young women across the country she is still Coach. And those players, both former and current, will forever appreciate the mark she left on the entire University, and, specifically, the softball program.
“She is UMass softball,” Plourde said. “I don’t know if there’s a better way to put that, but she built it up and she created a tradition and a family and she is the legacy. It doesn’t really belong to anyone else.”
Stephen Hewitt contributed to this report. Nick Canelas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.