When you go anywhere softball is played in the state of North Carolina, chances are you'll find someone who knows Mike Lambros.
The head softball coach at North Davidson High School in Welcome, N.C., Lambros was an icon in the local softball community, known for his kindness and his talent as a coach. He won two state titles with the Black Knights and never missed the state playoffs in his 38-year career. His 2010 squad was voted the No. 1 softball team in the country by USA Today.
North Carolina softball coach Donna Papa called him one of her best friends.
"He was such a student of the game, he was always eager to learn," Papa said. "I picked his brain, he picked my brain. He went all over the country to Arizona, Tennessee... he went all over to try to learn the game and prepare his kids at the highest level. His practices — he was very precise in what he did."
Lambros coached Tar Heels, including current fielder Hailey Cole, but Papa said he'd also work with players such as Destiny DeBerry, who played for Ledford, a rival high school of North Davidson. That was just the kind of person Lambros was, willing to work with kids, going as far as watching local middle school games so he knew what his team had to work with in each incoming class.
But he also was the type of person who built personal connections, treating everyone like family. In her pregame dedication, Papa said the Black Knights would welcome her like one of their own, offering her brownies as she sat and watched the games.
Perhaps what Lambros was most well known for, at least to those that knew him well, was his signature catchphrase: "Yeah baby!" Lambros would tell all of his players, his coaches, and anyone who would listen to have a "Yeah baby!" kind of day.
"He was always that guy who was really spreading the game around the state, but he did it in such a great way," Papa said. "He was so classy. One of the best people I've ever been around in my life."
Lambros passed away this past September after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Before Sunday's game against Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels took time to dedicate a seat in Anderson Stadium to the North Carolina softball Hall of Famer. His wife, Sharon, threw out the first pitch.
After UNC (22-19, 11-4 ACC) completed a sweep over the Hokies (15-23, 2-12 ACC) on a come-from-behind walk-off single, Papa said the team felt like Lambros was smiling down on them, helping them get that final run.
It was a "Yeah baby!" kind of day for the Tar Heels.
A slap grand slam?
Kiani Ramsey's dad can't come to many of her games. His work schedule left him unable to attend all but one game this season, Ramsey's first in Carolina Blue after transferring from Texas Tech. But on Friday night, Donald Ramsey was able to watch his daughter play.
"I felt like my dad is like a good luck charm to me," Kiani Ramsey said. "Any time he's there, he just brings this positive energy."
The positive energy turned into a night to remember for Ramsey and the Tar Heels. With UNC leading 6-2 in the second game of Friday's doubleheader, the junior center fielder had two strikes on her when she twisted her hips and slapped her bat, trying to poke a ball down to score a run.
The pitch was high, the contact was great. And the ball sailed over the fence for Ramsey's first-ever collegiate home run, giving the Tar Heels a 10-2 lead that would hold through the run-rule shortened game.
"I just told myself to stay short to the ball," Ramsey said. "I obviously wasn't trying to hit a home run. I'm known as a power slapper, so I just needed to touch the ball and at least a run was going to score."
Papa said power slappers like Ramsey can really get a hold of the ball when they make solid contact, using the speed of the pitch with the bat to drive the ball far. But even she rarely sees something like that.
"For a slapper to be able to drive a ball and be that solid and stay through a ball like she did, it was so awesome to see it go over," Papa said.
Freshman comes up big in the clutch
Sierra Parkinson doesn't take the credit for her walk-off hit on Sunday, a rifle back up the middle with two outs and the bases loaded that turned a 3-2 extra inning deficit into a 4-3 win. She trusted her teammates, Ramsey and Kristina Burkhardt, to score once the ball got to the grass. She just did her job.
"We've been on the other end of that so many times, and it's really frustrating," Parkinson said. "I knew, with the juju and everything, that it was our time."
Her coach was more complimentary of the freshman's performance than Parkinson was of herself, pointing out the great approach the freshman brought to the at-bat. Parkinson also had the go-ahead hit in UNC's 2-1 win in the first game of Friday.
"Their pitcher, (Carrie) Eberle, is really a tough pitcher to get a lot of runs off of because of her drop ball," Papa said. "If we were getting behind with that strike, then she would go down and we would chase some of those.
"Sierra came out and attacked the first pitch, which is really one of the ones she threw for a strike...she had a great plan."
Pickett continues to carry the pitching staff
After pitching two complete games on Friday, Papa said she thought Brittany Pickett would take Sunday off to recover.
That idea didn't last long, as the reigning ACC Freshman of the year came in the second inning following Kellyn Daly giving up a two-run homer. Pickett finished the game for her 20th win of the season and third of the weekend.
"We wanted one of our pitchers to get some innings, but if she got in trouble, we decided we wanted to go for the sweep," Papa said. "Once those runs were scored, we felt like we really needed to bring Brittany in, and she did her job and did it well."
Pickett has thrown 216 1/3 innings this season, and managing that workload takes some careful planning from the Tar Heel coaching staff.
"She gets massages," Papa said with a smile. "At least one a week, or more. We'll rest her. We don't throw her in practice."
UNC has experience with helping pitchers with that workload, stemming from Kendra Lynch throwing 303 1/3 innings in 2016. Resting every practice to keep their arm from getting overworked helps, and it's about the only way to keep things stable for the sophomore southpaw.
Still, it's a heavy workload, and it's something the team will have to keep an eye on as they plan out their rotation.
"We're looking at, if we have two games in the midweek, which game that we really want her for and which one we potentially are not going to use her," Papa said. "Because we know we have a big series next weekend."
The Tar Heels have two midweek games: at home against Longwood and away at James Madison, two top programs in the Big South and CAA, respectively. Then, the Tar Heels have a rivalry series this weekend against N.C. State that will prove crucial for the ACC standings.
The Tar Heels currently lead the Coastal Division, but after some midweek struggles and streaky play through the non-conference slate, UNC still has to win several more games to secure a spot in postseason play.
"We've put ourselves in kind of a tough position from a standpoint at the end and postseason play, because we've had some good wins, but we've also had some bad losses," Papa said. "We've told the team it's how you finish. For us, we were really looking for the ACC play for us to be really strong."
Ramsey, however, knows her team can rise to the challenge, after she did so herself with this weekend's grand slam.
"I feel like the game really just picks you randomly, and if it's you, it's awesome, and if it's someone else, it's even more awesome," she said. "No matter where we start the game, no matter what our record is, we can get it done."