National Fastpitch Coaches Association HOF posthumously honors legendary North Carolina high school coach

Ten months after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Mike Lambros led the North Davidson softball team to the North Carolina state title. Yet his Cinderella story doesn't end there. Brad Arrowood

Sharon Lambros opened up a Word document on her computer, her dogs sitting in her lap, and didn't know where to begin. How could she possibly fit Mike Lambros' career and his character within a 17-minute speech?

She found reminders of him every day. An orange sunset, a song, a butterfly. "That's Michael," she'd say. She'd wear lockets from the two state high school softball championship teams Mike coached. Only on special occasions would she break out the rings.

Sometimes, she'd take them out of the special box she placed them in to give them another look.

"Just to see if they're there," she said.

Especially the 2017 one. North Davidson's title that year wasn't scripted. It couldn't be. To win it for Lambros, their coach of 38 years who 10 months prior had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, whose mother died at the field during a Strikeout Cancer game? No one would believe it.

But how do you follow a story with a Hollywood ending?

Lambros' legacy doesn't end at the field. It didn't end with his death last September. And it won't end with him becoming the first high school coach to be posthumously inducted into the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame on Friday night.

"I can't think of a more fitting high school coach to go in as the first high school member," said Carol Bruggeman, executive director of the NFCA.

His resume speaks for itself. With 878 victories, he's the winningest coach in North Carolina high school softball history. He has two state titles, even a national championship when his club went undefeated and ended the year atop USA Today's poll. They even made a Wheaties box to prove it.

Yet the Hall of Fame isn't just about numbers or statistics. It's not about how many wins and titles he had, how many All-Americans he coached, how many of his athletes went on to play in college. His work with the exceptional children's program at North Davidson was taken into account. So was his commitment to grow the game.

Mike went to softball conferences nearly every year, learning new techniques he would report back to his coaches and to players he'd host at his summer camps. He went everywhere from Tennessee to Texas, picking the brains of legendary college coaches like Arizona's Mike Candrea and UNC's Donna Papa. Even during family vacations at the beach, he found a way to call his assistants and let them know he saw a 14U team doing some drills when he was supposed to pick up a pie.

None of it upset Sharon, his widow. She loved his enthusiasm, his graciousness, his knack for making everybody he met feel like the most important person in the world. Even after a loss, he'd walk through the door, greet their three dogs -- two Cavalier King Charles spaniels named Jazz and Gracy and an adopted golden retriever named Beau -- and shout, "There's my darling!" to Sharon.

Mike's health declined quickly once the 2017 season ended. He used to coach wrestling and was built like a former wrestler at 5-foot-8, 165 pounds. By August, he had lost about 60 pounds. The doctor told the couple the chemo was no longer working and they didn't have many options.

"Sure enough," Sharon said, "he looked at that doctor, and with the strongest voice, he said, 'I am still going to beat this.'"

There were two dates Mike wasn't going to miss. The first was Aug. 25, North Davidson's first home football game of the year against Davie, for their ring ceremony.

He enlisted Jason Israel, who at the time was an assistant principal at West Davidson but now has the same position at North, to take care of the rings. Of course he wasn't going to say no. He had previously taught and coached at North. His wife, Kendra, played softball at North. Even their two children would call him "Uncle Mike."

Jason called Tuck Dieter, who has worked with Balfour for 15 years and worked with North Davidson's 2010 championship rings before. He was able to make a special request and turn their rings around in half the typical 8-to-10-week timeframe.

Dieter drove 2½ hours from Columbia, South Carolina, to Mike's house to meet with him, the coaches and the seniors to design the ring. Mike told the players he didn't want anything to do with the design -- didn't even want to see it before the ceremony -- but the players knew everything about it was going to be special.

He brought about 100 samples of rings and spent two hours with the players to design it. One side reads "LAMBROSTRONG" with his signature phrase "Yeah Baby" in a pennant underneath. In the middle of it is a map of the state of North Carolina with the No. 1 in purple. The other side has each last name, the Lady Knights logo and position. The top of it features an interlocking ND inside a softball diamond. First, second and third base are orange. Home plate is purple. Engraved inside, it reads: "Be a part of something bigger than yourself."

"It's a huge ring, twice the size of a girl's class ring," Dieter said. "They got something that stands out that's kind of gawdy, bold, big. They didn't want anything that looks like a class ring. They wanted something over the top to cherish for a lifetime."

An average softball team would have maybe 16 players on the roster, about five coaches and a handful of trainers. Then Dieter received the order: 72 rings.

"It was a champ order that I'll never forget," he said, "because it looked like a football ring order when it came in."

Mike wanted everyone "dressed to the nines" for the ceremony, so he wore his black suit with an orange tie and colorful socks, receiving a standing ovation during halftime when he was the first one to receive his ring. His health had deteriorated so much that he didn't have the strength to constantly stand, so he had to use a motorized scooter to hand each person their ring. But he was set in making sure they would receive their rings from him.

"He looked at that doctor, and with the strongest voice, he said, 'I am still going to beat this.'" Sharon Lambros

"It wore him out. He was exhausted," said Kristi Hogan, one of his assistants who played for him in the early 1990s. "But that was Mike. He wasn't going to let cancer beat him in that aspect. It might take his strength and it might take his life, but he wasn't going to go down without a fight."

After he stopped his chemotherapy treatments, Mike had his good days and his bad ones. But he knew the inevitable. One Monday in mid-September, all he wanted to do was be by the ballfield. He went by the middle school to take in a game and see his coaches.

"You could tell he was saying goodbye to a couple of different people," said current North Davidson coach Kevin Berkley, an assistant coach under Mike whose daughter, Lydia, was on the 2017 championship team.

That's when he saw Hogan working with the first basemen.

"He said, 'I could not be more proud of you than I am right now,'" Hogan recalled. "I said, 'Don't start talking that mess to me. I don't want to hear that. I appreciate that, but you're not going to say that to me yet.'

"In usual Lambros fashion, he said, 'Now, what I want you to do is, I want you to work on their footwork every single day until it's automatic.' I said, 'You got it, Coach.' That was the last thing he said to me."

Mike then went down to UNC that same night with two assistants, Sam Cole and Lamar Powell, and surprised Sam's daughter Hailey, one of his former players.

Hailey called Papa to let her know Coach was there. "I'm like, 'What?!' He didn't tell me he was coming," Papa said. That's when she turned off the TV, changed her clothes and immediately drove to the facility for their Monday night clinic.

Mike watched batting practice from a chair up on the concourse. As he caught up with Hailey, he was still critiquing players' swings.

"I hugged him bye and I was crying," Hailey said, "and he was like, 'No, this is a happy visit.'"

As soon as they were ready to leave the parking lot, Mike needed them to pull over because he felt sick. Doctors recommended he stayed home to buy him a few more days, but he wasn't one to be cooped up. They stopped on the side of the road when Hailey, Papa and the other UNC coaches saw.

"That was the first time it really resonated with me how sick he was," Hailey said.

Mike still had 11 days to go before the second date he vowed he wouldn't miss: his and Sharon's 38th anniversary.

On Friday the 22nd, he took a turn for the worse. Hospice came to their home and told Sharon they didn't think he would make it past that day. Friday turned into Saturday. Saturday into Sunday. He kept fighting. Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday. Early that Friday morning, his breathing pattern changed, and that's when Sharon called his name.

"He took one last breath and smiled," Sharon said, "which is amazing because he had been in so much pain in the past and frowning and uncomfortable, but when he passed he had a very peaceful smile."

Ten minutes into their anniversary, Mike passed away at 64 years old.

They held his funeral two weeks later, as softball players wore their purple jerseys in honor of him. His assistants spoke. His former players spoke. Sharon spoke. And Mike also left people with a few words.

Three months before he died, he recorded a video meant to play at his funeral.

"It was Coach," Berkley said. "It had serious points in it, but he was Coach. He was making jokes. He told the videographer at one point, 'Hey, are you almost done asking me questions? Cuz I've got to go. We've got a game tonight.'"

For all the time Sharon needed to mourn, everyone in town made sure she wasn't alone. Parents offered to pick up groceries. Coaches would shovel her driveway when it snowed. Even the oncology team at Wake Forest Baptist sent her a Christmas card featuring an ornament of Mike.

The December after he passed, the NFCA announced its Hall of Fame Class of 2018: Tennessee co-head coach Karen Weekly, Salisbury head coach Margie Knight and Mike Lambros.

Papa nominated him shortly after he revealed his diagnosis in 2016, and on Mike's second year of eligibility, the 11 members on the NFCA's Hall of Fame committee elected him in. Papa and Mike went way back, even during the days when North Carolina high schools were still playing slow-pitch. (It didn't adopt fastpitch softball until 1996.) She recalled the summer camps they held, the shared pizzas in Greensboro, his genuine energy.

Papa and the Tar Heels held a pregame ceremony in honor of Mike on April 8 of this year, bringing North Davidson players to the field for a game against Virginia Tech. There, Papa revealed the school was dedicating a seat in the first row behind home plate to Mike. Not just any seat. Seat No. 6. Hailey Cole's number.

"I broke down," said Hailey, who wore a purple bow in her hair throughout the season. "It meant a lot to me."

Sharon threw out the ceremonial first pitch. It was the first time she had returned to any softball diamond since he passed. And for as emotional a moment as it was, it paled in comparison to the next day: her return to Mike Lambros Field.

Sharon went to only that one North Davidson game. The team played several different audio clips in tribute of Mike and had one of his former players dress as a Black Knight on horseback. Sharon stood on one of the platforms behind the outfield fence, and outfielder Faith Jarvis ran over to her and gave her a great hug. North Davidson won 14-0.

Most of Mike's assistants had stayed at the school. Before he passed, he told Berkley he wanted him to be his successor as head coach. The school posted a formal opening online for several days but no one applied. It was assumed it was Berkley's.

"He believed in me to ask me to do this," Berkley said, "and I feel like he knows that he trained me well enough to do what he wanted done with this program."

The 2018 season didn't end in a championship. Because of realignment, the school went down from Class 4-A to 2-A, competing against smaller-sized schools. The Black Knights went 25-4, losing in the Sweet 16 of the state tournament. The NFCA named North Davidson's coaching staff -- all 14 of them -- the South Region's Coaching Staff of the Year.

Aside from it bearing his name, Mike's presence always remains at the field. When Berkley would paint the lines and mow the grass -- Mike's favorite things to do before games -- he'd tear up. Sometimes when he would turn off the lights, he'd swear he thought he saw Coach standing by the dugout.

One day a month after Mike passed, Berkley's phone went off as he was setting up batting cages. It was Mike's customized ringtone. "I was scared to even take my phone off the clip and look at it," he said. It was Sharon, calling from Mike's phone, letting him know a college coach left a message about a player, not knowing Mike had passed.

The ringtone was "Take Me Out To The Ballgame."