‘His love for the game has never weakened’

Sal Mignano patrols the third base coaching box at Southampton High School around the 1982 season. (Credit: Courtesy photo)
Sal Mignano patrols the third base coaching box at Southampton High School around the 1982 season. (Credit: Courtesy photo)

Buddy Gengler stood at the podium inside the dimly lit auditorium at Shoreham-Wading River High School, the rain having forced the day’s festivities indoors. As he gazed out into the audience, he saw a crowd that had gathered to honor him along with two other former baseball players, Matt Millheiser (2001) and Bryan Sabatella (’02). On this day, their jerseys were to be formally retired, their legacy forever etched into SWR lore. But Gengler knew the day would be about more than his past accomplishments on the diamond. It was about something bigger. Someone bigger. 

As athletes go, few were more skilled in Shoreham history than Gengler, an elite soccer and baseball player whose real name is Gabriel. As a senior in 1997 on the baseball team, he set single-season school records in batting average, hits, runs batted in and slugging percentage — records that still stand today. He was a two-time All-Patriot League shortstop at West Point and became a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, serving two tours in Iraq.

Don’t let the name fool you; they don’t come tougher than Buddy.

Now 35 and the father of four young girls, Gengler, who lives in Wading River, wore a blue Shoreham-Wading River baseball shirt Saturday as he approached the podium to recount one of the most challenging times of his life.

He was a 15-year-old sophomore and a rising star on the baseball team when his mother was dying from cancer. In keeping with her wishes, Gengler and his family kept the tragedy close to the vest. A mix of emotions bottled up inside, Gengler grew reticent as his schoolwork slipped. No one knew what was wrong.

Finally, he confided in his baseball coach — Sal Mignano.

“Sal went to all my teachers and other people and said: ‘Go easy on Bud. He’s going through a tough time,’ ” Gengler told the audience, fighting back tears as he spoke. “He took care of me. He offered me the support I needed through an unspeakably difficult time.”

In his 38 years as varsity baseball coach at SWR, Mignano coached 337 young men over 907 games. To some, like Gengler, he was a father-like figure.

When winter gives way to spring next year, the Wildcats will begin their first season without their hall of fame coach. After 583 career victories, seven county championships and 12 league titles, Mignano has decided it’s time to retire.

“Those titles are the small part of what’s kept me coaching baseball here at SWR,” Mignano said during a speech Saturday, as he publicly announced his retirement for the first time. “The competition, the staff that I worked with, the coaches that we battled against and the friendships that have developed have all been highlights.”

Mostly though, Mignano said, what kept him around all these years centered around two things: a love of the game and the young men he was honored to coach.