California coach Bobby Sangster (center) will coach the Lady Pintos with a heavy heart this weekend in the Class 3 Final Four in Springfield.

March 7, 2018

CALIFORNIA, Mo. --- It's the dream of every high school athlete in every high school sport, making it to the Final Four. Especially that sport in March.

The thrills and highs of the achievement, however, go beyond the athletes. They spread to the school, the fans, the community and, of course, the coaches.

That's what makes this so sad and unfortunate, because the thrill for California Lady Pintos coach Bobby Sangster is certainly cloaked in sadness.

Sangster's father, Ed, died Saturday night, shortly after the Lady Pintos earned their spot in the basketball Final Four with their quarterfinal win.

Ed Sangster was only 69.

"I've never really had to deal with this before," Bobby Sangster said. "There are parts of me that wonder if I'll be able to truly enjoy this week."

This was not a surprise for Bobby, 38, and the rest of the family, as Ed had been battling cancer the last 18 months. After a valiant fight, it was just a matter of time.

"He was in real bad shape," Bobby said. "He was always a pretty good-sized lad (230-250 pounds) --- I come by it honestly, and both my (younger) brothers are pretty good-sized people, too --- but he was down to around 100 pounds when he passed."

In cases like this, most would agree that ultimately, this is a blessing. But have no doubt, it still hurts.

"I think the Good Lord gave me a really, really good basketball team at a really, really good time." Bobby said. "It's a very special game, we put a lot of time into it and we're lucky to build a lot of great relationships from it. But when something like this happens, you realize it's just a game.

"I don't know if I'll feel the true pain and true sting of everything, because of the joy and excitement of going to the Final Four. I feel like I have a whirlwind of emotion that will come down on me, eventually, and I don't know when it's going to hit or how it's going to hit.

"But someday, it will."

Sangster said he's been "blown away" by the support he's received throughout the community, a community, of course, that includes his players.

"We've said since Day One here that this is a family, the entire program," Sangster said. "We may not all live under the same roof, but we are fighting this battle together. We try to help each other out .... we're in this together through thick and thin.

"The girls have really been supportive of me, they've really given me something to look forward to. They've given me a lot of care at a time you can never have too much of it."

No truer words.

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THE LADY PINTOS HAVE CERTAINLY PEAKED at the right time, turning a good 12-4 season into a fabulous 25-4 campaign on the heels of their 12-game winning streak, which includes the program's ninth district championship and third trip to the Final Four.

What makes them so good, anyway?

"Their unselfishness, the way they care for their teammates," Sangster said. 

In other words, family.

Again.

"This group is so aligned in their vision and they're so giving for one another," continued Sangster, as unranked California gets set to battle fifth-ranked Clark County (28-1) in the Class 3 semifinals at 4:30 p.m. Friday in Springfield.

"They care about their teammates, they don't care about their stats or recognition or awards, or anything like that. They care about the team and they do things the right way."

Including have a good time, because this is a game after all.

"They'e energetic as all get out, they're super positive, and they're just so much fun to be around," Sangster said. "If you think the product on the floor is fun, you should watch our bench --- they're absolutely outstanding. They're working just as hard as the girls who are on the floor.

"That's pretty special."

It sounds like this team is a reflection of their coach.

"That's nice of you to say," said Sangster, who's in his 14th year coaching, the last 11 at California. "I know the girls see my commitment and how much I care, that's what matters to me.

"I don't want to just coach them for four years, I want to coach them the next 40 years of their life. I hope they feel comfortable enough that if they ever need something, they can pick up the phone and call their old coach."

While this is truly a team, the Lady Pintos have a clear-cut leader --- 5-7 senior Elizabeth Lutz. She's the leading scorer in program history with over 1,800 points, and is leading this year's team in both scoring 20 (ppg.) and rebounding (6 rpg.)

"I've been really lucky to coach a lot of really good players and really good people," Sangster said, "but I've never coached anybody like her. She is a next-level player, but she's twice the person. If you think she does good things on the basketball floor, you should see what she brings off the floor. 

"It would be easier to say what she doesn't bring to the table than what she does. She hits big shots for us, she makes big defensive plays for us ... she's a a huge safety blanket and comforter for the girls, because they can lean on her when she's on the floor."

As in, scoring 15 of the team's 16 first-quarter points in the quarterfinal win over Penney.

"That allowed the rest of the girls," Sangster said, "to kind of feel their way into it."

Lutz has plenty of support --- this time, we're talking about the other players on the floor, not the aforementioned players on the bench. They include:

^ Tristan Porter, 5-6 fr. (9.6 ppg.)

^ Brittany Ellington, 5-6, sr. (8.8)

^ Gracie George, 5-7 jr. (7.8)

^ Paige Lamm, 6-1 soph. (7.0)

Clearly, there's balanced scoring after Lutz and in rebounding, there are four players averaging between four and six a game. 

"We do a really good job of team rebounding," Sangster said. "We don't really rely on one person to do all the board work."

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SANGSTER ENTERS THIS WEEKEND with a career record of 290-98, meaning he's only two non-wins away from reaching a benchmark .

"The last time I went down there (2009, finished fourth), I got skunked," he said. "So I told the girls that I want to get at least one."

He has a bigger goals than avoiding his 100th career loss and, rest assured, California fans will be there in force to help the cause.

"The people around our community, it's just unreal how they support their young people, their young athletes, in all of their endeavors," Sangster said. "It's second to none."

Sangster has no doubt there will be one very special fan, in particular, who will be on hand.

"I know dad's proud," Bobby said, "and I know he'll be up in the stands wearing red, white and blue and cheering for the Lady Pintos.

"I already feel it."

Sangster, Lady Pintos heading
to Final Four with heavy hearts

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