UMass softball team begins first season without Elaine Sortino

Last modified: Tuesday, March 18, 2014
AMHERST — There are moments, lots of them everyday in fact, when Kristi Stefanoni wishes she could call Elaine Sortino with a question or an idea. There are other moments, plenty of those too, when Stefanoni, now the coach of the University of Massachusetts softball team, is at practice and hears herself repeat a phrase or an instruction she’d heard Sortino say hundreds of times.

Since the legendary UMass coach died in August, Stefanoni is mourning the loss of her friend and mentor, while at the same time continuing Sortino’s legacy, as she leads the Minutewomen.

“I have my good and my bad days. I wish she was here all the time. There’s those days where I’m like, ‘what would she say to me? What would she have me do? What would her advice be?’” Stefanoni said. “Then there are days where I just do it. Those are the days that her teaching and me being around her for so many years just kicks in. I think it’ll be like that for quite some time.”

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Stefanoni will be joined this season by associate head coach Danielle Henderson, who returned to Amherst after coaching at Ohio State and Stanford. Stefanoni led most of the program’s day-to-day activities during the past two seasons and even coached when Sortino was limited as she battled cancer.

“No matter if it’s your 35th season coaching or your first season, everybody has the jitters and the butterflies. You’re anxious to get going. You want to get the first game out of the way and after that you settle in and know what you’re doing,” Stefanoni said. “Anxious is probably an understatement, but I’m ready to go.”

She had to wait a little longer than expected. UMass was supposed to open last weekend at the FAU Kickoff Classic, but snow prevented the Minutewomen from getting a flight south. Leaving nothing to chance, UMass is heading out Wednesday, a day early, for Clearwater, Fla., which gives them a day to practice outside before the NFCA Leadoff Classic. The Minutewomen will play perennial power DePaul, Friday at noon, and Charleston at 2:30 p.m.

Saturday starts with Rutgers at 2:30 and follows with the first of three meetings this season with longtime rival Connecticut. UMass will play Hofstra, Sunday at 11 a.m.

The event is one of three tournaments the Minutewomen are scheduled to play this season. They’re at the Louisville Tournament, March 7-9, and the USF Under Armor Showcase in Tampa, Fla. and Clearwater, March 14-16. UMass opens Atlantic 10 play March 22 at Saint Louis and plays its first home game three days later against Boston College at Sortino Field.

After finishing 18-25 a year ago, everyone in the program is eager to try to get back on the winning track.

To do that, they’ll need more consistent pitching as UMass had a 4.58 earned run average last year. The staff will look different this season. Amherst native Emma Mendoker will miss the season with an arm injury, while Lindsay Webster and Bridget Lemire, who were both part-time pitchers, are no longer pitching.

While freshmen Tara Klee, of Hamburg, Pa., and Dakota Smith-Porter, of Turners Falls, will both get chances to prove themselves, the early responsibility will fall to redshirt junior Caroline Raymond.

“Caroline is a totally different pitcher than she was a year ago,” Stefanoni said. “She wants to have a better strikeout-to-walk ratio, stronger innings, stuff like that. She’s had to go through a ton. The one thing that’s changed in her is her mental toughness. She has a brand new mindset, which has helped her out. I think that goes a long way with her.”

After three seasons that have been hampered by injuries, Raymond was eager to take her healthy shoulder into game action.

“I spent the first half of my career with collarbone issues. I had to battle back from that last year. It’s nice to have an extended period of time where I’ve been healthy and able to work on pitching instead of rehabbing,” Raymond said. “I think it’ll show in my pitching. It feels great. I haven’t had any issues in over a year. I’ve been working really hard. If we trust our preparation, we’ll get good results.”

Raymond said the only stat she’s focused on is winning.

“UMass is known for having these ace All-American pitchers. I don’t care what people think of me as a pitcher as long as we win games,” Raymond said. “If that means surrendering zero runs or nine runs, as long as we win games, I couldn’t care less.”

The Minutewomen will have a mixture of veterans and new faces surrounding Raymond.

First baseman Tiffany Meeks, second baseman Taylor Carbone and shortstop Quianna Diaz-Patterson, of Amherst, are all back, while Anna Kelley and Jena Cozza will get chances to win the third base job.

Webster, a senior captain and veteran slugger, returns in left. Mikayla Panko takes over in center field and freshman Cote Clark and sophomore Lindsey Zenk are battling to play right field.

Like the coaches, the players are eager to honor Sortino’s memory.

“We try not to act like it’s a bigger season than others, but we feel it. You try not to put extra pressure on ourselves, but we really want to go out there and show that we’re a much better team and we really want to play for coach,” Raymond said. “We definitely want to go out there and represent her and know that she’s watching and still proud of us.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed.