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A coach who touched 'em all

Gerry Gentner had the unique ability to see the world from his third base coaching box.

Not only could he see who his softball players were, he could see what they could become.

His death on Friday from abdominal cancer left a collective void in the hearts of anyone who ran the bases for Williamsville South. The man who felt blessed even in the worst of times will be buried today following a Mass of Christian Burial at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church in Amherst.

Gentner fought his disease like a batter fouling off 0-2 pitches. When the heartbreaking diagnosis came in 2007, he accepted it with grace, courage and a positive attitude.

In 2008 he was thrilled to be a candidate for what he called "the mother of all surgeries," which took place in Washington, D.C. This ultra competitor continued to coach through 2011, even while receiving energy-sapping chemotherapy treatments. His battle ended peacefully at Hospice Buffalo, where he was surrounded by loved ones.

Gentner would encourage his players to take what they learned as athletes and "pay it forward." It was a message that resonated with Michelle Fridey, a three-time All-Western New York catcher, who played for Canisius College before graduating in 2010. She is now teaching and coaching at Williamsville North.

"What he did didn't just stop with him. It made little footprints in our lives and spread like wildfire in more ways than he'll ever know," Fridey said. "He not only taught the fundamentals, but also about being a great teammate, being a whole team together, and being a good person outside of softball."

>Three state titles

Gentner was easily the most successful softball coach in Western New York the last decade.

In 14 seasons, from 1998-2011, the Billies won New York State titles in 2000, 2004 and 2006. They captured six Section VI championships, 10 ECIC titles and had a 59-game league winning streak from 2003-2007.

He coached 14 All-WNY players, including multiple-year picks Fridey, Chelsea Plimpton, Hilary South, Elisa Brinkworth and Jill Iacono.

In 324 games, he won an amazing 80 percent (259 wins, 65 losses). His 2000 and 2004 teams were undefeated. He was proud to be coaching with his brother, Bob, and his daughter Julie, who joined the staff after she graduated from Cortland in 2003.

Plimpton, now 22, was a four-time All-WNY pitcher while at South. After a successful college career at Fordham, she's now at St. Lawrence University working on a master's while serving as a pitching coach. She first started working with Gentner when she was 10 years old, one of many players who graduated from the local gym to greatness.

"I wouldn't be where I am right now without him," Plimpton said. "I wouldn't have played in college, I wouldn't have gotten the job I have now. Every pitching lesson I give, every drill I teach, is what he's taught me. He was so charismatic, and so loving, he kind of brought you in. It wasn't a mayor-type of personality where he was just schmoozing everybody, it was genuine."

The professional jealousy that sometimes comes with incredible success didn't exist among Gentner's coaching peers.

"If I can be half as good a coach, or half as nice a man as Gerry, I will consider myself blessed and successful," Williamsville North coach Rick Bubar said.

Said Depew's Dan Seelig: "The Williamsville South softball program -- led by Gerry, Julie and Bob -- is the program that all schools strive to become. The Gentners are the hardest working family in softball."

>Family man

A Williamsville South softball cap was among a few items placed in Gentner's casket at Saturday's wake. It was one of many hats he wore in his celebrated 67 years of life.

First and foremost there was his immediate family, wife Sally, daughters Julie and Laura and son Matthew. And he was the light of the life for his four grandchildren. Then there was his softball family, which not only includes South, but his many years of affiliation with the Amherst Lightning.

There was his Down South family in Fort Myers, Fla., with whom he shared laughs with while escaping the Buffalo winters. His L&M Financial family is where he served as a partner for more than 30 years. Don't forget his Brookfield Country Club family, a place he frequented for 28 years. His Cortland family he nurtured while Julie was starring on the field hockey and softball teams.

"Through the years there have been many Cortland field hockey fans," said Red Dragons coach Cindi Wetmore. "Many parents who helped our team along the way with cheers and uplifting hugs when needed, but only one Mr. Gentner. Always there, always cheering, always supporting us in whatever way he could. Simply put Gerry was our national champion."

email: mmonnin@buffnews.com