Back in February, back when all the pieces of the annual jigsaw puzzle were on the table waiting to be assembled, I wonder if anybody had an inkling that North Davidson's fabled softball program had another 4-A state championship in it.
The Knights won their only state title back in 2010, and that seemed to be enough. Coach Mike Lambros had created a remarkable program that had won everything in sight, up until then, except for the big one. His résumé was therefore incomplete: he was like the best golfer on the PGA Tour never to have won a major tournament.
A slogan, "Yeah, baby!" was born about 20 years ago to help bear the load and the team responded to it, through the good and the bad.
Then came 2010. The team went 33-0 and was ranked No. 1 in the country by USA Today. Lambros and the Knights had done it. It could never be better than that.
Certainly, this season didn't offer that kind of promise. Last August, Lambros was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and it seemed doubtful he'd ever be in a dugout again. But when February rolled around and practice began, there he was, a little thinner, a little grayer, giving instruction, shouting encouragement. The girls were listening.
Only six seniors dotted the 28-player roster. There were no big-name stars, no 15-strikeout per game pitchers. The team occasionally made uncharacteristic bonehead errors. In March, the Knights lost 2 of 3 games in one stretch, which almost never happens. Then, in April, they dropped a 7-3 nonconference decision to 3-A rival Ledford, quickly followed by a 5-3 nonconference loss to Enka in extra innings. Consecutive losses never happen.
There were no clues in sight. The Knights lost their Central Piedmont
Conference tournament championship game with a lackluster 8-0 defeat to league rival Davie
County. It was not the way you'd want to begin a run through the state
Then, in the first round of the state 4-A playoffs against Watauga, during a game she was attending, Lambros's mother passed away. Lambros, himself, was traveling peaks and valleys in his cancer treatment that left you wondering exactly where this man was finding his strength just to stand up.
And, yet. And, yet...
The Knights cut their way through the playoffs, winning six straight games and setting up a best-of-three championship with Fayetteville Cape Fear. Again, the odds seemed steep. Cape Fear had gone through the regular season undefeated, had one loss in the best-of-three semifinals, and came into the finals as the second ranked team in the country.
No problem. North responded by winning 4-0 in Friday's first game, and followed that with Saturday's 3-2 capper. A sweep.
Could a state title ever be so satisfying? Lambros' career numbers are staggering: 880 victories against 131 losses in 38 years. No high school softball coach in North Carolina has more. That's a winning percentage of .870. That's an average of 23 victories per year. Per year.
Through all of this, Lambros has deflected attention — or tried to — from his own circumstances and put the spotlight on his team. "I am not a woe-is-me type person," maintains Lambros, and he leaves you no choice but to believe him.
And so, the familiar slogan offers a new perspective, a new line of thought: