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T'S EASY TO GET EXCITED about the UMass softball team. All you have to do is find them.
At universities in California and Arizona, women play softball in stadiums the size of minor-league baseball parks, packed with fans who cheer their favorites under warm blue skies. At UMass, the softball team hosts home games on Totman Field, a well-kept but well-hidden diamond behind Totman Gym near the campus's northeast corner. On a good day a game draws 100 spectators.
Never mind. UMass' softball team is one of the best in America, and watching them is a treat.
At the Minutewomen's first home game this year, on April 4th, the temperature is 41 degrees and the sky is overcast. Yes, it's cold, but five of Coach Elaine Sortino's starting players are Californians who passed up recruiting offers from those sunny schools in order to play for UMass to play, they will tell you, for a passionate, sharply attentive coach and at a level equal to the best in the game.
Twelve of these Minutewomen are here on athletic scholarships, thanks to Title IX, the act that guarantees equal funding for male and female student athletes. Yet they are true amateurs, among the purest in a sports-minded society. No pro contracts, no endorsements await them after their final NCAA game. Pitcher Danielle Henderson may play on the U.S. softball team in the 2000 Olympics, and one or two others may play a season or so in a semiprofessional league, but the ones who make the sport their career will do it as coaches.
If anyone can be like Sortino.
SHE'S 5'5", MUSCULAR, TAN from the team's spring trips to tournaments in Florida, Georgia and Arizona. Thick blond hair falls over her black windbreaker as she bends at the waist, hands on her knees, and talks to a player in a base-running drill.
"You've got to stay low, and lean when you run. Be ready to explode off the base. And you need to look like this every time you're on base, not just when we have a running play on. If you don't, a smart defensive team will spot what you're doing."
Nonstop intensity: Elaine Sortino
Sortino's intensity is palpable and it is nonstop. She watches as the runner on first goes to second, the one on second takes third, the one on third charges home, slides, gets up, gets ready to do it again.
The fastest is outfielder Tracy Osier, a senior from Syracuse who holds the all-time campus record for stolen bases, and who defines the team's "short game." In baseball, where bases are ninety feet apart and the small, hard ball can be hit more than 300 feet, runners need those long hits to advance. In softball, the bases are just sixty feet apart and the ball travels fewer than 200 feet even when slammed into the outfield. The game is won by getting a runner on base, then moving her along with subsequent hits.
The Minutewomen are merely good not great hitters by Division I standards. The team batting average is a respectable .270; the highest average is that of senior first-baseman Kim Gutridge, who hits close to .400. But they know how to move each other along the base paths, and anyone who finds baseball annoyingly slow has not seen a UMass softball game.
The Minutewomen also have the single most significant component of a winning team in this sport: dominant pitching. This year that dominance is often summed up in one word: Harry.
"Harry" is Danielle Henderson, all 6'1" of her, a quiet, modest young woman whose soft, round face hardens in a microsecond into a fiery, clench-jawed stare as she delivers her 65-mph fastball. It comes straight over the plate, waist high, but the batter can't adjust fast enough to swing.
Strike one. The next pitch is lower. The batter looks, hopes it is too low. Strike two. The batter is ready for the third pitch, which comes from the same level as the last one, then rises. As she swings, the ball zips two inches above her bat and smacks into the catcher's glove.
Henderson was already acknowledged as one of the best pitchers in America before March 29 of this year. But on that day, against Fordham University, she pitched a perfect game a game in which not a single opposing player reached first base.
No walks. No errors. Two Fordham batters grounded out. Two popped up. The other seventeen a regulation game is seven innings, or twenty-one outs struck out.
As if this weren't bad enough news for UMass opponents, Henderson has one more college season to play. Furthermore, while she is the power pitcher, the team also claims two finesse pitchers, freshman Carrie Jeffries and senior Liz Wagner. On April 7, against Central Connecticut, Wagner threw a perfect game of her own, and Henderson threw a no-hitter and tied her own UMass record for most strikeouts in a game.
THE DAY BEFORE this year's first home games, a doubleheader against St. Bonaventure, Sortino speaks to the team with her characteristic intensity. "Get rid of them early," she says. "Score a few runs in the first, a few more in the second.
"Get them on the run with their tails between their legs, so they're hoping for the mercy rule." (The mercy rule holds that if one team is ahead by eight runs after five innings, the game is over.)
The next day the Minutewomen run the bases as they have run them in practice, and score three in the first inning. Then they cool off, but still win 4-0, and take the second game 6-2. The aficionados watch in admiration. Easily half are middle-aged men, longtime baseball fans who at one time or another have discovered the Minutewomen and now keep coming back.
The next day, a double-header with Dayton, is harder. Henderson strikes out sixteen batters, but the poker-faced Dayton pitcher has excellent control. UMass can't score. A Dayton bunt drops where no one gets it. Final score: 1-0 Dayton.
The Dayton players are delirious. The UMass players are determined. ("I couldn't sleep the night after that game," says Sortino later.) In the second game UMass hammers the ball everywhere and beats Dayton by the mercy rule.
Intense as she is, Sortino knows how to pace a team through a sixty-game season. In their early games against southern and southwestern powerhouses they may lose more than they win, but late in the season they win consistently. Last year they were one of eight teams to reach the college world series. By the time you read this they may have been there again.
Regardless, they will graduate and go on their ways. Chris Martens, last year's slugger and this year's assistant coach, will go to veterinary school. Speedster Kim Kenderski wants to be a businesswoman. Outfielder Jill Neilson is studying wildlife management.
For now, however, they follow Sortino's main order: "Stay focused!" They focus on the next pitch; the next grounder Becky or Kiley or Annie will stab and throw to Guttie at first; the changeup Nicole will hit over the left field wall for one of the rare home runs in the game; the run Tracy Osier will score by sliding around the opposing catcher and then rolling over to touch home plate with one outstretched hand.
-John Stifler '92G
photos by Ben Barnhart