UMass Athletics
UMass Athletics

Full circle: The return of UMass legend Danielle Henderson

From player to coach, one of the greatest athletes the University has ever seen comes back home

May 16, 2022

Despite a clear sky and sunny day, the wind rarely stops at Sortino Field. It’s already past 5 p.m. –– practice was supposed to be over, but the Massachusetts softball team still had live batting reps to finish.

In the pitching circle, with a protective screen in front of her and a patch of artificial grass underneath her feet to avoid digging a hole in the dirt was new head coach Danielle Henderson. “New” doesn’t feel like an appropriate word in this case; Henderson was one of the greatest athletes in the history of the University.

Now she’s on the mound once again for the Minutewomen, but this time it’s a bit different. The first-year head coach is pitching for her players in batting practice to help the offense and defense get game-like reps, while the pitchers work with the catchers in the bullpen.

Henderson stares her batter down, gathers momentum and sets her left support foot in front. Her shoe hits the ground as her right arm quickly rises on a full extension that windmills 360 degrees until the yellow ball flies off her hand.

Crack!

“Let’s go again,” Henderson said.

There usually is a cracking sound after most pitches in live batting practice as the ball flies off the bat, but they’re often not the crisp type. This one was another foul ball. Henderson always throws it at a pace that’s still challenging for a batter to connect, but slow enough that they can make contact most times. She gives under 50 percent out there, otherwise someone would have to update her strikeout tally; clearly, she’s still got it.

There are some aspects of playing at a high level that one can translate into coaching, such as a deep knowledge of the sport, experience at a leadership position on the team, learning to be coachable and to take criticism, and more.

Henderson learned something from her time as a player that she took into her coaching career from the beginning:

“You’re never, never satisfied. You’re always trying to do your best every single day, and that’s not something you could really let down on. And no matter what happens, good or bad, you still have to just show up and give your best because you never know what could happen.”

But despite Henderson having coached for the past seven years, the learning curve is still massive.

One of the biggest hills she’s had to climb as a coach is learning to grapple with an urge to control the game like she used to be able to from the mound.

“It is and it isn’t [similar],” Henderson said of playing and coaching. “One, [as a coach] you have no control. Obviously, as a player … I had a lot of control of [the game]. But now I have to watch all of them … You can’t pick up a ball, but you can talk them through it because you’ve been in that situation.”

“As a coach you feel like you’re succeeding when they win, and when they lose you feel like you’re failing. So, it’s like you’re living and dying by what they do. That’s probably the hardest part of coaching.”

A native of Commack, N.Y., Henderson knows a thing or two about working hard. She’s the blue-collar type. During her tenure as a UMass player between 1996 and 1999 under legendary coach Elaine Sortino, she fit within the doctrine established like a key inside a keyhole.

“I think I probably drove [Sortino] nuts with how much I wanted to practice my pitching, but I wanted to be good at it,” Henderson said. “I love softball, so I’d be the first one there and last one to leave.”

“I was probably perfectionist, borderline compulsive with things.”

There were uncountable 6 a.m. lifts followed by practices. Her bullpens were long; at least an hour every day. She’d often show up to Totman Gym before her individual practice time and throw against the wall if she had to.

After she finished college and there was no longer a limit in the amount of time she was allowed to practice, Henderson would take a bucket of balls, get on the mound and throw into a net for hours.

Even if coach Sortino wanted to give a day off, Henderson always refused. She was incapable of taking long breaks.

Kathryn Gleason, who coached Henderson as an assistant at UMass from 1997 to 1999 and worked with her in 2000, says coach Sortino was quite handy with woodwork. She built wooden pitching boxes in the bottom floor of Boyden Gym, where Henderson spent countless hours perfecting her craft. They called it ‘the Dungeon.’

“Danielle is the ultimate competitor … on the mound, she was just so fierce and so involved and dedicated to her craft as a pitcher,” Gleason said. “She just wanted to get better every time she did a pitching workout with coach Sortino. I still remember being [in the Dungeon] and trying to hit 65. Coach Sortino just wanted her to hit 65 miles an hour and she did it one day. I swear we were in the gym for like three hours trying to get it and she finally did it.”

Meticulous preparation and dedication to honing her craft  culminated in a Hall of Fame career, but Henderson didn’t seem initially destined for that path.

Henderson first started playing softball in elementary school, and by the time she reached high school it wasn’t even her main dish. She played soccer, basketball and softball. In the latter, she tried several positions before finding an affinity for pitching, and eventually reached a barrier between her and a career in college.

“I was like 15 and my travel coach said, ‘If you don’t learn how to throw windmill, you’re never going to play college.’ So she would pick me up and take me to the open gyms and teach me how to throw,” Henderson said. “So, then I went and dedicated a lot of time and a lot of wild pitches and balls.”

Only two schools believed in her. Hofstra, because the coach was a gym teacher at Henderson’s high school and UMass, because Sortino watched her at a tournament and saw potential.

Sortino had extraordinary vision, and always brought with that a plan to turn the vision into reality. Mikayla Panko, now an assistant coach for the Minutewomen, played under both Sortino and Henderson at UMass. “[Sortino] was amazing, it’s like she knew what was going to happen in the future of the game,” Panko said.

Gleason echoed Panko’s praise of Sortino.

“Coach Sortino was a worker,” Gleason said. “She sets the bar high and then you reach it and then she’s like ‘no, not high enough, we’re going to go higher and higher.’”

Sortino knew what her newest pitcher had in store and pushed her every day at practice, but for all the talent she had, Henderson also lacked consistency. The coach told her their other pitcher was better at the time, but she had potential.

Henderson’s transformation from high school to her freshman year was so massive that she once got the game ball for walking under 10 batters in a game. No batter was safe early in Henderson’s freshman campaign; she hit everybody.

It wasn’t long under Sortino that she learned to throw in the 60s and hit her spots. Despite only having a fastball throughout her freshman year, she still dominated the competition while perfecting what would soon become the deadliest riseball in New England.

Henderson won Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year and led the team in wins, ERA, shutouts and strikeouts. In the first game of the NCAA Play-in series against Marist, she threw the first no-hitter of her career. And it was only up from there.

The Olympic games took place in Atlanta that same year, and its undying flame sparked a farfetched dream within Henderson.

“I went to [watch] the ’96 Olympics and I told [Sortino] I wanted to make the Olympic team,” Henderson said. “She kind of just said ‘Alright, let’s do this’ … Then I came back, and I think everybody thought I was nuts. [Sortino] said ‘If you want to do it, let’s set a goal and a plan, and this is how you’ll do it.’”

In 1997, her sophomore year, Henderson learned to go fast and rise with her pitches. Behind Sortino’s and Stratton’s tutelage, she earned the first National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-American and A-10 Pitcher of the Year awards of her career, and her first pitching Triple Crown by leading the conference in wins, ERA and strikeouts.

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With Henderson on the mound in midst of a breakout season, the Minutewomen made the 1997 Women’s College World Series. They lost in the first round to eventual champions Arizona, but Henderson made the All-Tournament team.

By her junior year, Henderson learned to throw a changeup, which proved vital in maintaining the effectiveness of her riseball. She pitched five no-hitters and a perfect game against Fordham that season, which earned her another All-American nod from the NFCA.

Henderson says no one knew her journey would turn out this way. People were just happy that she was going to college to play. But the time she put in at the bullpen speaks for itself.

The pitcher broke school records in wins, strikeouts, shutouts (which she still holds) and strikeout ratio. She won another conference Triple Crown and led the country in strikeouts and strikeout ratio.

Her performance was enough to lead UMass to a second consecutive trip to the World Series.

“The whole team had confidence,” Henderson said of playing under Sortino. “Winning the conference, the regular season and the A-10 tournament was not questioned. It was just something we thought we were going to do. That’s why good things happen after, because you believe you’re going to win it and we did go through with it every time.”

However, the Minutewomen fell short in the first round again.

Henderson allowed three homeruns in that game, so in that offseason she went back to work and added a dropball to her repertoire for her last season.

By the time she was a senior in 1999, Henderson took her performance a step further. She tallied six no-hitters in the season, pitched two perfect games and earned a First Team All-American selection, along with a third straight A-10 Pitcher of the Year and pitching Triple Crown. Finally, she won the Honda Sports Award as the best softball player in the country her final season to cap off an all-time great career.

“I think one of my proudest moments was going out to Reno, Nevada, when [Henderson] was named the Honda Broderick award winner,” Gleason said.

Henderson concluded her time at UMass as a three-time All-American and four-time A-10 Tournament Most Outstanding Player. She ended with the most strikeouts, shutouts, wins, innings pitched, perfect games, no-hitters, best ERA and strikeout ratio in school history, and retired with the second most career strikeouts in NCAA history. Her 105 straight scoreless innings from March 16 to May 2, 1999, remains an NCAA record.

“The scoreless inning [record] will always stand [out] because I had no idea that it was a record, that it was happening,” Henderson said laughing. “I just said, ‘I had no idea,’ and everybody else knew and they just started clapping.”

Despite the riseball orchestrating most of her 1,343 strikeouts, the dropball turned out to be Henderson’s most effective weapon after college.

Fresh after graduation, Henderson joined the USA softball national team to play in the 1999 Pan-American Games that summer. She pitched a perfect game against Colombia and eventually took home her first gold medal.

Suddenly, a once-unrealistic dream didn’t seem so farfetched.

Henderson’s performance at the Pan-Am games earned her one of 15 spots in the USA Olympic team for the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

Last time Henderson saw the Olympic flame, it was from the stands; this time, she saw it from the mound. Two weeks later, she had a gold medal around her neck.

“To be on the U.S. Olympic team, I think that was probably the proudest moment for coach Sortino,” Gleason said. “To have her represent on a bigger stage, you know, just to have the UMass name get out there. I think that’s what Danielle prides herself in is just not only representing the University, but the UMass softball program and coach Sortino’s legacy.”

Becoming an Olympian comes with benefits for a young player like Henderson. She had the privilege to learn from the best, with top-tier facilities and training programs at her disposal. Henderson took advantage of pitching workouts with teammate Lisa Fernandes, one of the greatest softball players of all time, and with some of the best coaches in the country.

Also following her graduation, Henderson dove into the coaching world by joining the UMass staff as an assistant coach in 2000, where she remained for three years.

Then, taking all she had learned throughout her career in college, with the national team and as an assistant at UMass, Henderson tested the waters of professional softball. She played in the National Pro Fastpitch league from 2004 to 2007 first with the Akron Racers, then with the Arizona Heat and finally the New England Riptide.

Henderson always dedicated an incredible amount of time to softball; thus, she had to pick up a hobby for when she’s not on the diamond or watching film.

“[Henderson] loves home renovations,” Panko said. “I’ve been across the state picking up cabinets with her. She redid her deck. She loves cooking outside, so she’s a fantastic host, especially in the summer when she’s able to grill and make some pizzas outdoors. She’s roped some of us in on her home projects as well.”

The house Henderson bought at Lowell, Mass., was a total fixer upper. She started by redoing the bathroom, then moved to the kitchen. Every room downstairs was redone. She got everything down to the studs and did the plumbing, then put the floorings in and the drywall up. The kitchen and the bathroom both had brand new walls. Finally, she redid the deck.

“It was very satisfying to see the before and after,” Henderson said. “I actually read somewhere that people that are competitive, if they are no longer able to play, they find other outlets.”

In 2011, Henderson returned to coaching as an assistant at Ohio State University. Two years later, she moved to Stanford University for another assistant job, before rejoining the Minutewomen coaching staff in 2014 for a second stint, this time as the associate head coach.

Panko, an outfielder, played under Henderson her junior year. Henderson focused mainly on the pitchers, but she also worked with the outfielders a lot, which primed them to get to know each other.

“[Henderson is] very laid back,” Panko said. “She’s not going to yell at anyone, but she has high expectations. She also is very good at doing her research … She’s obviously not an outfielder, she’s a pitcher. She worked her butt off to learn things about the outfield, so then she can also teach us and be a good outfield coach. So, she puts in her work off the field as well. And I think the kids see that and respect that.”

After playing under then-assistant coach Gleason during her tenure at UMass, Henderson maintained a close friendship with Gleason to this day. In addition to her strong presence on the field, Gleason – currently the head coach at Northern Kentucky University – spoke highly of Henderson’s considerate disposition.

“[Henderson is] just a very caring person,” Gleason said. “She really cares about the people that are in her life and just worried about taking care of them and making sure everybody feels comfortable. But yeah, the competitor you see on the field with that face is very different from the one she has off the field in terms of her persona.”

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After one year as associate head coach of UMass, Henderson took her first head coaching job in 2015 as the leader of the UMass Lowell River Hawks, who had just completed their first season in Division-I softball.

Henderson quickly helped a newly D-I River Hawks team meet a much higher level of competition than was expected of them. It took her five seasons to go from a bottom-two team to champions of the America East Conference. The impact the two-time AEC Coach of the Year had on Lowell’s transition period was monumental.

Bill Vasko, currently the head coach of the Frostburg State softball team, formed part of Henderson’s first staff at UMass Lowell as an assistant for four years. Few witnessed her growth on the job from as close as Vasko did.

“Just learning what it’s like to manage a team and 20-plus personalities on a team and getting them all to gel and come together to work towards a common goal is a lot of challenge at Lowell, because we were going through the transition from Division-II to Division-I,” Vasko said of Henderson’s obstacles in the role.

“We experienced a lot of turnover in the roster and new people were coming in, and some people, their role may change on the team. So learning how to balance and deal with all of that was one of the areas I thought she really grew and developed in.”

Panko, whom Henderson recruited to her Lowell staff as an assistant, says one of Henderson’s strengths as a coach is that she gives assistants freedom and lets them bring their specialties to the table, among others.

“I think she manages the full season really well … and she manages the players really well in terms of their health, and their mental health as well,” Panko said of Henderson. “So, I think she’s really grown into that and seeing the softball year is more than just January to May, seeing it as a full year.”

According to Panko, another strength of Henderson is her ability to turn the program into a family. When they’re on the road, Henderson is always the last one to leave the complex; she always makes sure everyone gets home.

Similarly, Jessie DiPasquale, currently a junior pitcher for the Minutewomen, says Henderson is incredibly approachable and ‘100 percent’ supports the players off the field.

“Every day when we walk into practice, [Henderson] always says hi, and it’s not just a ‘hi,’ it’s like ‘how are you?’ You can hear that she actually cares,” DiPasquale said. “She knows about all of our finals and what we’re doing and what we’re taking. We’re more than softball players to her, which I think is really important.”

Henderson’s tenure at Lowell lasted seven years until a former teammate from her time as a pro informed her of an opening at UMass for the 2022 season.

For Henderson, Amherst was always on her mind.

“It just feels like the circle of life,” Henderson said of returning to UMass. “It seems like a long road, but I definitely feel like this is where I belong. This place has always felt like home, even when I wasn’t coaching here, I was doing lessons, I would always come back here. I love the place, I love the school, I love the people and the surrounding area.”

Henderson was inducted into the UMass Hall of Fame in 2009 and is the only softball player to have her jersey retired by the University. Number 44 will always live in history, and now she’s back home to add another chapter to the history books.

“I think the best part of Danielle, what I’ve learned is that no matter what successes you have or accolades … you always go back to your roots and to the person you are,” Gleason said.

“Danielle is a very proud Long Island girl, from New York, and she’s very proud of her roots and her family there. And I think she takes that also into always going back home, which is UMass Amherst.”

Pedro Gray Soares can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @P_GraySoares.

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