In the aftermath of Rachel Sottosanti’s tragic death Friday night, there have been two central themes, one I found somewhat surprising and one that was totally expected.
While I knew Sottosanti, 19, who was a sophomore at Southern Connecticut State University and a three-year starter for Westhill High School’s softball team, was exceedingly popular, I had no idea just how many lives she touched. Right now it is 8:30 and there are over 100 people still waiting to get into the wake, which started at 4 and was supposed to end a half hour ago.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Nick Santagata, a close friend of the family. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
What will cause not one head to turn is this: Stamford remains a city that operates with the heart of a small town. And while it is easy to nitpick at many of the problems that afflict the local sports world, one fact is indisputable: When one of our own is in need, this community rallies with hurricane force.
At this point over $10,000 has been raised to help the Sottosantis, and that figure is still growing. The Westhill softball team raised around $2,000 on its own, selling baked goods, some of which were donated by Grade A, and walking the halls with empty water jugs as students and faculty members donated what they could from their pockets.
“I’m not really surprised because I know how many people care, but you are surprised when it happens,” said Brittany Longo, Westhill’s second baseman and co-captain, whose family is close with the Sottosantis. “It’s really overwhelming. You see in bad times everyone come together.”
I can’t think of too many stories I have covered both so tragic and inspiring. Sottosanti spent many of her weekends sacrificing the social activities of a college student so she could make the trip from New Haven to her hometown to work with young athletes who, if we are truly blessed, will turn out to be like her one day.
There were probably days Sottosanti didn’t have a smile on her face. I just can’t recall any.
The news of Sottosanti’s passing was a kick in the gut. No parent should have to bury a child, no child should have to mourn a sibling.
The Westhill community has been forced to deal with way too many tragedies, yet again it has proved both resilient and strong enough to rise to the occasion.
Just how highly regarded was Sottosanti? On Tuesday afternoon at 4:30 p.m., there will be a dedication service at the entrance to the Westhill softball field, where a bench will be placed next to the memorial for Allyson Rioux. The Westhill softball players will wear black patches on their uniforms in their former teammate’s honor for the remainder of the season.
“Everyone who knew Rachel, and I was fortunate to know her real well, knew she was a great, great kid,” said Mike King, Westhill’s athletic director, who was Sottosanti’s girls basketball coach. “I think everyone at Westhill liked her, and that says a lot about her.”
At Trinity Catholic, where Sottostanti’s sister Erin is a sophomore, students started out selling bottles of water to raise money. That expanded to selling ribbons and baked goods. The officers in the school’s sophomore class decided to go into their own account and match the total amount raised.
“Everyone is just showing such great compassion for the family,” said Jack Kelly, a history teacher at Trinity who is also the assistant basketball coach at Westhill. He was Sottosanti’s freshman coach. “Everyone is contributing in so many ways. I’ve had kids I don’t even know giving money, and Trinity is not that big.”
Santagata has served as the point person for the Sottosanti family. He has spent the last few days collecting the many checks that have started to arrive in the mail or were handed to him.
“I always knew she was special because I’ve known her forever,” Santagata said. “The way Stamford has rallied around her is amazing. It’s been a roller-coaster ride for the family, but they have been able to see the positive.”
I hope we have seen the last of these tragedies, but there is something comforting knowing that if you live in Stamford, you have a large safety net at your disposal if you ever need it.
Longo summed it up best: “There is something to really be thankful for. We really have a good community.”