North Rockland High School Class of 1984
In the early part of the new century, Linda Soto and her immediate family were making so many trips to Florida to visit assorted relatives that by 2005 it just made sense to move there.
Now she lives about 1,200 miles from North Rockland High School, where she pitched herself and her team to glory in the first half of the 1980s.
So where does the transplanted die-hard Yankees fan live? Just a sharp line drive away from Tradition Field, the New York Mets’ spring training home in Port St. Lucie.
But even all those miles from what once was home hasn’t distanced her from the game she loves.
She’s already a member of the North Rockland High School Sports Hall of Fame and a double honor this spring has her heading back to Rockland for induction into the Rockland County Sports Hall of Fame and even farther north in June, to Herkimer, N.Y., for induction into the New York State Softball Hall of Fame.
After starting her softball career playing in the North Rockland Girls Athletic League in 1973, Linda played four years of varsity softball at North Rockland. She also played the infield, but she was truly a standout on the mound, pitching to a 43-3 career record under the watchful eye of Coach Isidro “Papo” Cancel.
In the 1983 and 1984 seasons, all she did was lead the Raiders to consecutive final game victories in the Class A Capital Region championships – the last stop in post-season play in the era before state championships.
The regional titles were the icing that came after North Rockland won two consecutive Rockland County Public School Athletic League (PSAL) softball championships – including their first ever – and three Section 9 titles.
Her performance earned her back-to-back first team All-County and All-Section 9 recognition and twice she was the Lady Raiders’ MVP.
Veteran North Rockland Athletic Director Joe Casarella says, “Linda became the most dominating pitcher in New York State in her junior and senior years.”
In 1984, she was the best of the best in New York, honored as New York State Softball Player of the Year.
Of course, she also played travel softball, teaming up with some of her in-season opponents, and also played and later coached in the Empire State Games.
As if that wasn’t enough, she also played varsity basketball at North Rockland.
But it was her pitching that earned her a four-year softball scholarship to New Mexico State University that was length- ened to five years by what would now be called a medical redshirt, because of a freshman-year back injury.
Unfortunately, the coach who had recruited Linda left early in her career, breaking a bond that never quite got rebuilt with the new coaching staff. Injuries, too, continued to nag her, but overall Linda says, her mission was accomplished. She opted to go west, hoping to play against top-notch college players and teams and the New Mexico State Aggies presented just that kind of opportunity.
She played on what was usually around a .500 team, but just as she had hoped, that came against the best of the best competition in the West, including powerhouse UCLA. “We held our own,” she says, “and often we were a step above.”
She not only was in the starting lineup, but batted cleanup throughout her playing time there and in her senior season played first base and hit a solid .350.
She returned to Rockland after graduation in 1989 and put her criminal justice and social work studies to use for 15 years as a case manager for the Rockland County Department of Social Services.
Always wanting to give back to the school and game she loves, Linda also coached at North Rockland for seven years as assistant to Coach Tony Toronto.
Although she jokes about considering her coaching mentor a traitor for retiring from North Rockland and moving on to coach at Nanuet High School, she says of their seasons together, “They were amazing. He was so supportive of my career and I appreciated the opportunity to give back, passing on my learning experiences from college.”
“Linda is not only a great player, but a great person,” says Casarella, noting that as a coach at her alma mater “she brought many of our young players to the next level. She has been an ambassador for the game of softball and an excellent role model.”
Linda took great satisfaction teaching the Lady Raiders every- thing she knows and finding them receptive. “Virtually all the girls I coached went on to play college softball, whether at Division I or another level,” she says.
Despite her strong connection to the community and North Rockland, Florida’s pull won out in 2005 after countless trips to visit her family and that of her husband, Edwin Vazquez, who is originally from Puerto Rico. “He loves boating, fishing and scuba, so it just made sense for us,” Linda says.
Linda almost immediately started working at the Boys & Girls Club of St. Lucie County, first as a truancy specialist and now as director of that program, anti-gang outreach and a summer meals program for children who usually get their nourishment through school.
This May, between her Hall of Fame inductions, she will be honored by the Children’s Services Council of St. Lucie County as their “Champion for Youth.”
Their two children, 14-year-old daughter Aleya and 9-year-old son Richard, known as “R.J.”, haven’t caught mom’s diamond sports bug. She’s into dance and cheerleading and is a standout in volleyball. He’s more into flag football and soccer.
Linda played coed softball until about 2012 when she was again hampered by a neck injury requiring surgery.
But she’s healed up now and on the same evening she spoke about the upcoming Hall of Fame inductions, she got a call from a friend asking her to consider coming out of retirement.
Reflecting on the honors coming her way this spring, Linda says, “Sitting back thinking of the joy, friendships and memories softball has brought to my life puts a smile on my face. Not many people can say the same.”