WELCOME – Kevin Berkley is stepping into some pretty big shoes. In the world of sports, being the person who takes over for a legend often is a difficult scenario for any new and aspiring coach. When it comes to North Davidson High School softball, however, being the person who takes over at Mike Lambros Field can feel pretty intimidating. As unfortunate circumstances would have it that is where Berkley finds himself as the Lady Black Knights set out to defend their state championship.
Berkley this season becomes the first person to manage the Lady Black Knights in more than three decades, as he takes over for his former mentor and friend, who passed away last September. Coach Lambros left behind more than just a group of talented girls; he left behind a legacy, a powerhouse program he molded for the better part of 30 years.
“[Lambros] changed the sport of softball for the whole state of North Carolina,” Berkley said. “He was one of the main ones who brought fast pitch softball to North Carolina. You would just be around places and everybody knew Coach Lambros. You could be at Arcadia field on a Saturday afternoon for little league baseball and you would hear his voice. He just wanted to get out and watch a game. He loved athletics and he loved young people in general.”
Lambros forged a career worthy of his commitment to the game of softball. NDHS perennially had teams compete for state titles and his outreach into the community created a home away from home for many of his players. Lambros proved to be more than a coach and often was described as a second father by girls whose life he changed for the better through the sport he loved.
On one August night in 2016, Berkley and the rest of the Black Knights family saw their cornerstone coach suddenly appear mortal, and everything changed. A seemingly innocuous phone call about running a little late to a meeting turned into a revelation of bad news that rocked the North Davidson community.
“We actually were having a coaches meeting at my house for our travel ball organization,” said Berkley. “Coach called and said he would be running a little late. He said he didn’t know what time he would get there because he had family coming to the house. I knew he had been having a lot of pain and had been to the doctor. He said he had cancer and he had to tell his family. His son works in Asheville in an area with no cell service, and he said he wanted to keep everything quiet until he could tell Josh. That was probably the hardest week of my life not being able to tell my 17-year-old daughter that this coming season was going to be a lot different. When doctors found out he already was at Stage-4 pancreatic cancer.”
When the time came to tell the team, the magnitude of the situation crashed like thunder.
“It was extremely impactful,” Berkley said. “It was sort of a kick in the gut, especially for the girls. For some of the girls playing today or were here last year or were around him with their travel ball team since they were nine years old, he was almost like a second dad to some of them. As far as us coaches, we had been trained by him for years and he was our mentor and a lot of us got into coaching because of the influence he had on our daughters. It was a tough pill to swallow.”
Once the shock of his diagnosis wore off, the team went back to business, mainly because Lambros wouldn’t accept anything less. As the season rolled around, those close to him knew what the chemo treatments were doing to his body. Berkley and other coaches literally had to carry their mentor into his house following practice. The girls saw the deterioration of their role model physically but managed to draw strength from his never-give-up attitude. Eventually a motto was born; Coach never gave up on us so we’re not giving up on him.
“We really came together for Coach [Lambros],” said Regan Spencer, a sophomore pitcher who would add her own chapter to what would become an unlikely fairy tale. “He was out here every day. He would go to chemo and be back here at practice. If he was out here giving us his all we would make sure we were giving him our all.”
NDHS came into the season with little expectations. The Lady Black Knights weren’t ranked high nationally and any type of letdown would’ve been expected considering the circumstances. Lambros never used his battle as an excuse and neither did the girls.
“[Lambros] wasn’t going to give up on his girls,” said Berkley. “There were nights where we would pick him for practice and have to carry him to the car. But he would walk through the dugout and put on the biggest front for his girls that he was feeling good and everything was great. He would holler at them and fuss at them just like he normally would. By the time we took him home we would have to carry him back into the house. It was hard on us all. The girls saw him declining daily but they didn’t see the real picture behind the scenes like the coaches did day in and day out. It was tough last season. Every day was not knowing. We weren’t sure Coach would be here for the first day of practice. Every day was a blessing that he was still here barking orders at us during practice but it was a tough situation.”
Once the playoffs arrived, North, having lost five games during the regular season, wasn’t viewed as a true title contender. But this team already had faced its share of obstacles over the course of the year and was ready to lay it all on the line for their brave coach. One by one, round by round, the Lady Black Knights marched through the 4A playoffs, exceeding expec - tations and keeping hope alive, for themselves and their coach. Finally, on a June afternoon at UNCGreensboro, North Davidson completed its remarkable run, sweeping Fayetteville Cape Fear to capture the 4A state title.
“Last year was unbelievable,” Spencer said. “You couldn’t write a better story. We had such a fun time, even if we did badly. We picked each other up and team chemistry was great all season. When we finally got there and won the state championship it was just that fairy tale ending people talk about.”
Lambros passed away in September, three months after winning his second state title. As he looks back on the season, Berkley still has a hard time believing what a roller coaster ride it was.
“To overcome every adversity this team faced last year to just be able to finish strong would’ve been an accomplishment,” Berkley said. “To win the state championship still feels unrealistic. There are no words. The team we had last year was one built around a lot of experience. Coach’s condition weighed on the girls but what he did in practice every day and what he showed them strengthened the whole group. The girls basically said he never let us down and we’re not going to let him down. They fought and they worked hard, and you would never hear them complain. They knew he had just left being in chemo all day and was sitting there in the dug - out watching them practice. It took every ounce of energy in his body to come out and watch them. I think it taught the girls a tremendous lesson about life that you can overcome death and grow through the battle. We all grew tremendously last season in a lot of different ways.”
Before his passing, Lambros, knowing 2017 would be his last year coaching, asked Berkley if he would take over the program after he’s gone. Berkley never saw himself as a head coach, especially with his youngest daughter graduating and moving on to UNC-Charlotte. When Lambros asked him to take up the baton, he didn’t think twice.
“You can’t fill his shoes,” said Berkley. “He picked me because I think he believed in me and my philosophy of the game. He knew that I would do everything possible to keep the program going in the right direction. It was one of the moments where you’re speechless and also scared to death. You’re not just taking over a program; you’re taking over a legacy. Nobody is going to do it the way Coach Lambros did. It wasn’t my plans to do this, but when he asked me I felt like I needed to do it for him. That’s the biggest honor I could have, for him to say he wanted to hand off the program to me.”
Berkley seemed like the logical choice to many within the program.
“I think Kevin first and foremost cares about the kids,” Mark Hayes, NDHS athletic director, said. “He understands the legacy that Coach Lambros has left. He has been around the program for several years and he’s passionate about the game. He wants to see the program succeed. Coach Berkley definitely was my pick as well to take over the reins. It’s a lot different not having Lambros around. He will be missed greatly. His legacy will live on and all the people he has touched over the years will never go away.”
Life does go on and a new season of Lady Black Knights softball is underway. Things are a little quieter around Mike Lambros Field these days. Berkley doesn’t have quite the same bravado as his predecessor and the girls already miss Lambros’ unique sense of humor, but they feel him looking down on them.
“It’s different not being yelled at every second, but just the pace of everything you can tell is just different,” said Spencer. “[Lambros] was around my whole softball career. I started travel ball at seven and he would just come out here because he loved it so much. He was always around. By the time you got to high school he knew who you were. I miss his playfulness. He was energetic and always had these witty little comments. We all miss him.”
Berkley doesn’t see himself replacing his mentor. He’s there to keep the ball bouncing around a program that always will have Coach Lambros’ stamp.
“My mindset for one is to keep the program the same,” Berkley said. “Nothing is really going to change. My coaching style is the same aside from a few different approaches. He would holler a lot where I have a quieter tone. He was a fireball, like the Tasmanian Devil just walked in the room. As far as the season goes, we should be really strong. 2A is a strong conference and there’s a lot of realignment. People move to this area to play softball at North Davidson. We’ll have a strong season. Scheduling is probably my biggest nightmare because Coach did so much behind the scenes that people didn’t know about. It’s something I have to learn on the ropes. Coach was my rock but he also was my biggest critic. If I had questions I could call him. I would get texts from his during the game. I think about him a lot. We’re going to keep this program at the forefront. We’re going to try new things and be very modern. You don’t know until you try it.”
Make no mistake, 2018 will not be treated any differently under Berkley. The Lady Black Knights have set lofty goals and are determined to honor their coach one last time.
“I’ve already told the girls that this is a state championship year,” said Berkley. “Our mindset right now is that we’re going to be 2A state champions. It won’t come easy but they’re working really hard and we’re holding them accountable. It’s not just softball, its life. We’ve got a goal. Coach Lambros is being inducted into the National Coaches Hall of Fame in December in Chicago. His wife, Sharon, will speak on his behalf and we’re planning on doing a long video tribute of him and his career. She made me a special pullover that Coach always would wear and I told her to keep a few minutes of the video open at the end. After we win the state championship I want to put that in there for him. That’s our goal.”
As far as coaching shoes go, none get much bigger than those of Mike Lambros in the world of high school softball. Berkley understands that. He is not there to fill anyone’s shoes. He is there to honor a friend and keep the legacy of Mike Lambros alive and well on the field bearing his name. If he can do that, Berkley considers anything he does at North a success.