Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Elaine Sortino inducted into UMass Athletic Hall of Fame

By Stephen Hewitt

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Maria Uminski/Daily Collegian

During their weekly staff meetings behind closed doors in University of Massachusetts conference rooms, Elaine Sortino would typically sit to Athletic Director John McCutcheon’s right, silent yet attentive to the topic being discussed.

Sortino, the longtime UMass softball coach who also served as the Senior Women’s Administrator, would listen to McCutcheon, but that didn’t mean she was agreeing with what he was saying. And McCutcheon, who admitted that he often “was about to make some kind of ill-advised decision on how we should handle” the topic at hand, could sense it.

“I would feel this burning sensation just about on my right temple,” McCutcheon joked. “There would be no words spoken. Maybe just a little shifting around in her chair, but I knew I was getting ‘the look’ that so many umpires have received.

“I slowly turned and asked our master of non-verbal communication where I was going astray,” McCutcheon continued. “Elaine would calmly point out how we might be looking at the situation differently, and thus the good shape of UMass Athletics remained on a true course.

“I will truly miss those learning moments,” he said.

Those learning moments were the theme of the day on Sunday afternoon at the Mullins Center, where about 300 people, including family, friends, fans and UMass softball alumni, gathered to celebrate the life of Sortino, who died on Aug. 18 after a nearly two-year battle with cancer, bringing Alumni Weekend festivities to a conclusion.

During her 34-year career at UMass, Sortino took on many positions and roles. In addition to being softball coach and Senior Women’s Administrator, she was also the head volleyball coach from 1979 to 1986 and Associate Athletic Director for Sports Programs and Student Services.

Sortino was also a member of the George “Trigger” Burke UMass Athletic Hall of Fame Selection Committee, where she was responsible for helping select nominees into each respective class, for years.

Two weeks ago, Burke said the committee gathered for a special meeting at Gillette Stadium, where it voted unanimously to make Sortino the newest member of the UMass Athletic Hall of Fame.

Burke, who was joined by McCutcheon to make the announcement, urged him to find a suitable replacement on the Hall of Fame committee for Sortino, who was the only female member.

“Believe me, Elaine was my confidante,” Burke said. “She would tell me who was good, who was real good, who was the best. I’m going to miss her so much on that committee. And John (McCutcheon), I’m assigning you a responsibility to find a woman of Elaine’s capacity to serve on that Hall of Fame committee, because we don’t have any female representatives now. Elaine was such a great person. She loved this school, and she dedicated herself to this school.”

Planet Fastpitch owner Denise Davis, interim UMass softball coach Kristi Stefanoni, former UMass men’s basketball coach John Calipari, UMass Class of 1983 member Susie McCrea and UMass Class of 1987 member Emily Bietsch each gave tributes to Sortino during the celebration.

Through each tribute, one theme was apparent: Sortino provided life lessons and teaching moments to seemingly anyone she encountered.

“She was the original players-first coach,” said Calipari, now the men’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky, in a video message. “She wasn’t afraid to be aggressive, wasn’t afraid to tell the truth, wasn’t afraid to drive ’em. And for me, I was able to watch that as a young coach.”

“She was always there when you needed her most for advice and support,” McCutcheon said. “When my wife Sue and I lost our son, Elaine was at our door in a minute, with a hug and a caring heart.

“And also lasagna,” he added. “And it wasn’t frozen. How she could cook lasagna that fast, I have no idea. I think maybe she just had one on hand for all occasions, I don’t know. I wouldn’t doubt it.”

Even as she battled cancer for the last year and a half, Sortino was providing lessons of strength and resiliency.

This past spring, as the UMass softball team got ready for early-season games at tournaments in Florida, Sortino and Stefanoni would typically wake up two to three hours before the team did, eat breakfast and start strategizing for that day’s game.

“She would constantly check in with me, asking if I was OK, asking if I was tired,” Stefanoni recalled.

In her earlier coaching days, Stefanoni might admit being a little tired, but this changed after watching her mentor battle with her illness every day.

“That’s when I realized, she’s still teaching me. She’s still helping me grow as a human being,” Stefanoni said. “She was physically showing me the fighter vs. victim mentality. Coach was never going to let cancer get in the way of coaching the team and winning. She was never going to let it make excuses for her.”

Through it all, Stefanoni said she gained important life lessons that she hopes will carry on.

“That is what I hope our team can take away from all this now,” she said. “What she truly meant when she asked them to fight, and to never give up.”

Stephen Hewitt can be reached at [email protected]

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