Building a Dynasty: Hamilton Softball Coach’s Family Legacy of Inspiring Women in Sport

  • March 08, 2024

CAO’s Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench article series – March 8, 2024

“I love everything there is about coaching and it gives me a great deal of joy seeing people achieve success”

By David Grossman

When trying to epitomize Steph Sutton, there are words like inquisitive, confident, and elegant that all blend well and need to be included when describing and characterizing this woman.

Those who know her, and there are many, see Sutton as an individual with the power of belief and one who is an enabler of ensuring things end up being positive and justified.

Sutton has come a long way from those early toddler years of learning to figure skate, tackle swim lessons, stand up on snow skis, play hockey, ringette and softball as a kid.

If the surname registers a thought, yes, she’s the daughter of the late Dr. Gene Sutton, a guru in gymnastics, an educator, a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee and a genuine role model who had inspired women in sport.

“Little Gene”, as some call her, is following in her mother’s footsteps as one who elevates style and personal growth. The family genes are all there. She’s also trustworthy and distinguished as a coach – something she has been doing for the past 30 years.

It’s fitting on 2024 International Women’s Day, this year on March 8, that the powerful series of stories by Coaches Association of Ontario (CAO) continues to highlight impressive coaches. This time, shining the spotlight on the younger Sutton. Her focus is the role of coaching (something she adores) and as a person who is a facilitator and not, as she puts it, one associated with a dictatorship.

“While my mom had a bigger presence in the community than me, I have her determination, focus and drive to do what I can in bringing out the best in young people,” said Sutton, who has been coaching softball at McMaster University in Hamilton since 2009 – the year her mother passed away.

But that’s not where the story ends.

Involved in a variety of volunteer activities that include the Canadian Olympic Academy, KidSport Ontario, Big Brothers and Sisters, Sutton gained a wealth of knowledge and experience in holding a variety of responsibilities as an administrator, manager, technical specialist, and recreation director.

Yet, there is one distinct area that sparkles with success.

It’s defined as “when an individual works with a trained professional in a process of self-discovery and self-awareness”. Yes, coaching. The act of helping a person identify strengths and develop goals. It’s something Sutton, if there was an academic grade, would score honors.

Whether it was as a trained mountain bike community coach, or a university fast pitch coach or even the time when she coached herself playing field hockey back in high school when no one could be found, Sutton is a dream come true for young people eager to learn and strive for success.

For transparency, and just in case the thought was there, her coaching debut – as an 18-year-old – resulted in a 2-0 victory.

“I love everything there is about coaching and it gives me a great deal of joy seeing people achieve success,” said Sutton, who once coached a softball game in her bare feet to support Right to Play – a national campaign to raise awareness and funds for children who do not have a safe place to play.

“Back in high school, I was always thinking ahead – and everything led back to sport,” she said in our telephone conversation. “For me, it was picking something passionate that gave me lots of joy.”

Sutton has also had her share of success as an instructor. In addition to her National coaching certification, she has won medals with women’s fast pitch teams on three occasions during her tenure at McMaster. She still maintains contact with dozens of players, graduates of McMaster and now into fulltime careers.

“I care about my student athletes as if they are my own family,” said Sutton. “I have had wonderful experiences with coaches in my life through all the different sports I played. I felt this call to duty to give back to the community that once provided a great experience for me.”

Brittany Hicks, who played for Sutton while at McMaster and is now a physicians’ assistant at Hamilton General Hospital after earning a Kinesiology Degree, knows all about Sutton’s devotion.

“She’s a strong influencer and I remember, in my first year (at McMaster) playing softball, she was always very approachable, understanding and encouraged me to feel confident,” said Hicks, who was a shortstop on the 2009 team that won an Ontario Intercollegiate Women’s Fast Pitch  Association (OIWFA) championship.

“Very few coaches invest in athletes like she does. I remember her being quiet, but it was her way of taking time to learn about us, analyse our skills and whatever areas needed work. She always cared about everyone on the team.”

Hicks went on to play for Team Canada as a member of the National squad from 2011 to 2013.

Sutton has also taken on a new challenge as the administration coordinator of the Mount Hamilton Youth Soccer Club – the largest club in the city – and still finds time to run a not-for-profit cycling club in the Steel City.

She is one of the founders of the Golden Horseshoe Cycling Hub, which is made up of 35 kids – between the ages of five and 17 – who each challenge the sport to improve their balance and coordination as human-powered vehicles.

Almost 10 years ago, Sutton signed up for a female coaching mentoring program offered by the CAO. Since then, stressing confidence and knowledge, she has guided coaches in a variety of sport at through various levels of competitions.

Her actions have also caught the attention of many parents whose children were coached by Sutton. John Haefele is one of them. He met Sutton at a clinic for the Rosedale Youth Softball League in Hamilton – and not long after, he found out Sutton was also the coach of his daughter, Diana, at McMaster.

“We were experiencing some problems as a league and (Sutton), was invited to put on some softball clinics for us,” said Haefele, who had been an executive member of the league. “Her policies, procedures, and advice helped us a great deal.

“As for my daughter, she became a better player and a better person, too, and it was because of (Sutton). I am a former coach and understand that it can be difficult to coach high-end sports and recreation programs. I have watched kids languish for missing an assignment, but (Sutton) just always had the best interest of all players, made things easier and, while stressing to play hard, also brought enjoyment.”

Born in Hamilton, raised in the small community of Copetown (a 15-minute drive west of the Steel City), and now living in Dundas, Sutton once thought about a career as – a train engineer. Most likely it was because she lived near train tracks.

For many, a large part of what people do is peer into the future. Where to go, what to do, the planning, discussions, and the range of defining ideas. There are goals to achieve and, as Sutton has shared on numerous occasions, respect – especially for coaches – is paramount.

But it was in grade 7 at Ancaster Senior Public School, after having played a variety of sports, that she joined her friends and got hooked on hockey, ringette, and softball. She played the outfield position and did so for a variety of community teams until she turned 45 years old. Passion for sport was a huge factor, but there was also enjoyment, exercise and being with people.

For Sutton, connections can often be invaluable.

While a student at Mohawk College and studying Recreation Leadership, she had an internship at a community centre in Brantford. After graduation, her first fulltime job was as a facility supervisor at a municipal location in that same city known for more than the name Gretzky.

As for her reflection on coaching, and its rewards, Sutton put it this way.

“I just never want to give (coaching) up,” said Sutton. “Sharing knowledge, wisdom, experience – it can only help others. Coaching young people keeps you forever young.”


David Grossman is a veteran multi award-winning Journalist and Broadcaster with some of Canada’s major media, including the Toronto Star and SPORTSNET 590 THE FAN, and a Public Relations professional for 45+ years in Canadian sports and Government relations.

Sharing knowledge, wisdom, experience. Coaching young people keeps you forever young.”