Sunday, June 5, 2011

Oodles of kudos for North softball

Sometimes transformative moments come at the most unexpected times.

North Davidson's softball team was on the verge of elimination from the 4-A state championship Friday at the Walnut Creek Softball Complex in Raleigh. The Knights, the defending state champions who already had lost the first game of the double elimination tournament 6-2 to Alexander Central, were trailing Clayton 2-1 going into the bottom of the seventh inning of the elimination game.

But Paige Wall opened the inning with a triple and then scored on a wild pitch to tie the game. North went on to win 3-2 in a nine-inning heart-stopper. Wow.

In fact, North ultimately came tantalizingly close to defending its title, winning two more games Saturday before surrendering a pair of runs in the top of the seventh inning to lose to Alexander Central 3-2 in the championship game.

If someone had told me a week ago that North would even be back in Raleigh for the tournament, I would have looked a him with a skeptical eye. The Knights had graduated 10 players from a year ago, including MVP pitcher Hannah Alexander. In fact, the Knights had just two starters back from last season, outfielder Jessica Plemmons and first baseman Robyn Stanek. This kind of lack of playoff experience usually doesn't bode well for a team's chance to repeat as champion.

So back to the transformative moment. Although I retired from writing for The Dispatch nearly five years ago, I still help out when the two-man sports staff is stretched thin. And it gets stretched like an old rubber band when two teams — North Davidson and Central Davidson — make it to Raleigh about the time American Legion baseball gets cranked up.

So I was in Raleigh Friday night to cover North. And when the Knights lost to AC after committing four jittery errors in the opening game, I thought to myself, "Yep. Too young. Too bad. At least they had a nice run to get here."

I thought that again when it looked as though Clayton was going to send the Knights packing. But everything changed the instant Wall slapped her clutch triple to right center. From that moment on, it seemed the Knights gained confidence, experience and poise, and did it pitch by pitch.

They had transformed themselves into a championship calibre team right there, right at the do-or-die junction of its season. If North should win the title next year, I dare say they can point to the bottom of the seventh inning against Clayton this season as the turn-around moment.

All of this also begs another question: given North's relative youth and inexperience (and yet North still pushed AC into a second championship game), does this become coach Mike Lambros's best coaching effort to date?

I vote yes. Lambros, who picked up his 700th career victory back in April, characteristically will point to the girls, or to his very able coaching staff, as the reason for the team's success.

But I want to suggest that Lambros, who sometimes gets criticized for overcoaching (even from himself), or for having too much pepper in the pot, probably doesn't get recognized enough for locating the pivotal nuances in the game, or in his players, that can make the difference between winning or losing. Coaching is more than X's and O's, of course. It's also a sensory experience that includes a feel for the moment, along with intuition and common sense.

Lambros, I think, has all that. North, the only school where's he's ever coached (something I respect and value) is lucky to have him.

And I can't wait until next year.

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