Cancer-fight ongoing, UMass softball coach Elaine Sortino relishes return

Last modified: Friday, September 14, 2012

AMHERST - Elaine Sortino can drive her car again. She can go into her office at Boyden Gymnasium and she can stand behind pitchers again as the University of Massachusetts softball team practices.

It doesn't sound like much. She's done all of those things thousands of times as part of her routine for 33 years as softball coach. But after months of not being able to do them as she battled cancer through the spring and summer, Sortino is relishing a return to a routine.

"It was so nice just to go into the office this summer and be back. I love my job," Sortino said. "I have the best job in the world."

Sortino continues to keep the details of her illness and treatment private, but said that while she's improved, her battle is still ongoing.

"I'm still working at it. I'm not out of the woods. I'm dealing with something I'm dealing with. I'm stronger. I'm able to walk around on my own," she said. "I'm driving my own car. I'm not a hostage anymore. Thank God. Can you imagine what it's like not to drive? You can't do anything. You can't go anywhere. When they finally said I could drive, I was grateful for that. And while I'm not out of the woods medically, I can at least do what I want to do when I want to do it and not ask people. I can just go."

What she wants to do is coach. That's all Sortino has ever really wanted to do. Her entire adult life has been about molding her players into successful athletes and people, and making UMass one of the best programs in the Northeast.

Her entire calendar was a consistent cycle. She knew at specific times every year she'd be doing versions of the same things, sweating little details, dotting every "i" and crossing every "t" to keep the Minutewomen successful. The routine and being around a continual wave of 18- to 22-year-olds made it almost easy to forget she was aging.

"The kids are always the same. None of them have gray hair and I've always felt the same. I'm in this vacuum," she said.

Her cancer diagnosis caved in that vacuum.

"That kind of bopped me over the head. When you do the same thing year after year after year, you don't realize time is going on," said Sortino, who has long declined to reveal her age. "It was like a slap upside my head saying 'life is moving on now Elaine.' I have to be aware of that. It was kind of sobering thing as far as the years passing by. I respect that it's not forever."

She's respecting her body too.

"I have to be smart. The 12-hour days won't happen anymore," she said. "They can't or I won't have the two days that follow it, I have to pace myself so I'm there at practice all the time."

Not being there in the spring was torturous for Sortino. Her treatments made her too weak to stand for long stretches, so her assistants Kathryn "Burt" Gleason and Kristi Stefanoni ran most of the practices. Sortino coached the games she could from an elevated chair on the bench.

The staff met daily at Sortino's Hadley home to work on practice plans and strategy. Sortino was adamant about not wanting her health to derail her team's chances for success.

"The one thing I kept saying is that we've got to stay focused. I said I'm not talking about anything other than keeping those kids insulated and focused on where they needed to go," said Sortino, who praised her assistants. Gleason was in her second stint working for Sortino. Stefanoni, who played for Sortino, has worked for her the past seven seasons. "I'm glad it was Burt, who had already been here, and Kristi, who grew up here. Only people that know me could have handled it. It was hard last spring. We had to change everything to keep that team going.

"So many things needed to be adjusted and changed and moved," she added. "For them to understand and put up with my passion to make it happen, it could only be people that truly understood. Somebody else would have been looking at me like 'are you crazy?' I am and they knew that. I was lucky that they understood that I was crazy."

It wasn't just her staff picking up the slack. Her friends, her family and the community helped her with everything from simple tasks like driving, running errands or just passing along a get-well note to the extremely generous. Someone donated a van to drive Sortino to St. Louis for the Atlantic 10 tournament and then to Columbia, Mo. for the NCAA tournament because she wasn't allowed to fly.

"I was blessed with an army of angels. I couldn't ask for more other than not to have this happen," she said. "People would help and do whatever they could to help keep things going for me and my health and the team."

Never one to want to rely on anybody, Sortino is elated to be back on the job running practice again as her team goes through its autumn exhibition schedule. She's pacing herself, but still making sure the little details don't get ignored. She's in regular touch with Gleason, who was hired as head coach at Boston University, and Whitney Mollica, a recent alumna who is the interim head coach at Amherst College. Both call with questions looking to add to the wisdom they've acquired from Sortino over the years.

Sortino promoted Stefanoni to associate head coach and added former star pitcher Brandice Balschmiter to the coaching staff. She's enjoying being around them.

"I'm so happy for Burt that she got her own program. As hard as it was to see her go, she deserves it. I really felt that Kristi stepped it up so much last year. It means so much to have people around that really understand this program. You can have a passion for winning, but to have a passion for that jersey that's an overpowering force," Sortino said. "Brandice said to me, 'It would be an honor to have this opportunity.' She said, 'Coach, if I'm going to learn this, I want to learn this from you.' What more can you have from a kid? Who can be invested more than that?"

Sortino can. She has been for a long time and is glad that she can still be that invested.

"I'm back in the department doing what I want to do," she said. "That's where I want to be."

Matt Vautour can be reached at Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at


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