When he was a first-year teacher in the Shoreham-Wading River School District more than a decade ago, Kevin Willi was approached by longtime baseball coach Sal Mignano. The Wildcats had an opening for a middle school coach. Mignano, knowing Willi had played baseball at Stony Brook University, asked him if he was interested.
Willi jumped at the opportunity, the first step toward accomplishing his dream of becoming a varsity head coach. Over the next 13 years, Willi coached at different levels throughout the program, most recently coaching alongside Mignano as a varsity assistant.
When Mignano retired at the end of last season after 38 years, Willi was the obvious choice to be the successor and take on the daunting role of following the footsteps of the only varsity head coach the program has ever known.
“It was always my dream, always my goal,” Willi said Monday afternoon after the Wildcats’ first official practice of the 2015 season. “Ever since I was in high school, college, I wanted to be a varsity coach.”
Willi takes over one of the most storied baseball programs in Suffolk County. The Wildcats begin the season seeking a 30th straight playoff appearance as they try to defend their League VII title. Mignano, a Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame member, retired with 583 career victories.
On a pleasantly warm afternoon Monday, as snow still covered the diamond, Willi led the team through its first practice, simulating baseball plays on the blacktop behind the gym.
“It was crazy with the snow in the background, guys had one foot on a snowbank catching fly balls,” Willi said. “That was pretty cool. It was good to get out.”
A graduate of Longwood High School, Willi led the Lions to a state championship and was a team MVP for two seasons. He played one year at Presbyterian College in South Carolina before transferring to Stony Brook, where he was a pitcher the next three seasons until 2002. He’s now a middle school science teacher.
Willi said his goal for the baseball team is to continue the tradition Mignano established. Coaching under Mignano for several years afforded Willi the opportunity to learn up close from a legend.
“It’s amazing to be a part of that,” he said.
It was Mignano’s attention to detail that Willi said stood out to him. Everything had a reason behind it, from something as minute as the team having different uniforms to wear throughout the season.
“When I first started, it sounded silly to have three hats,” Willi said. “But I realized the importance of it as the kids have pride in what they’re doing.”
Willi said the key is creating an atmosphere where “the kids feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves.”
Ryan Pembroke, a 2003 Shoreham graduate who helped the Wildcats to a county title in 2002, will coach alongside Willi this season as the varsity assistant. Pembroke was the junior varsity assistant last season. Mike Garofola, who has coached varsity at Bellport and Center Moriches, will coach the junior varsity this year after working as the middle school coach last year.
For all of the program’s traditions, Willi knows there’s one that ultimately stands above the rest: “Of course, the tradition of winning,” he said.