Preps

Gary athletics struggling as Lew Wallace's fate hangs in the balance

2014-04-29T19:00:00Z 2014-04-30T19:48:12Z Gary athletics struggling as Lew Wallace's fate hangs in the balanceSteve Hanlon steve.hanlon@nwi.com, (219) 933-4198 nwitimes.com

GARY | A cold April wind whipped out of the north last week. Surely the waters of Lake Michigan were chopping harshly 25 blocks away.

Ron Heflin and Benny Dorsey felt the chill in their bones. An all-consuming sadness enveloped the Hall of Fame coaches as they walked around the now-Roosevelt College & Career Academy.

"The pride is gone," said Dorsey, a 1954 Gary Roosevelt grad and longtime Panthers coach in basketball and baseball. Dorsey coached three major leaguers in Joe Gates, Wallace Johnson and Lloyd McClendon.

"You can't give up hope," said Heflin, a '58 'Velt grad and coach of the 1991 state championship team at the school. "But this is hard. It's sad."

Roosevelt wasn't just the pride of Gary in a bygone era. But also Indiana and America.

George Taliaferro, the first black man drafted in the NFL, went to Roosevelt. Lee Calhoun, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, did, too. As did Chuck Adkins, who won Olympic boxing gold. Dick Barnett played 14 seasons in the NBA and won titles with the Knicks.

Glenn Robinson was Indiana's Mr. Basketball in 1991.

"Times change," Heflin said. "This place isn't what it once was."

Troubled schools

In 2011-12, the state handed control of Roosevelt to New York-based EdisonLearning because of poor test scores. Initially athletics were going to be cut, but they survived, barely.

In the 2012-13 school year, Roosevelt had four athletic directors. The girls basketball team did not enter the IHSAA state tournament. It did not register online like the 399 other schools did. The state association tried multiple times to contact Roosevelt, but to no avail.

Now, Lew Wallace Science Academy is facing similar doubts as the Gary Community School Corp.'s budget deficit has left the school on the chopping block.

Wallace only played six games last season. Previously, Wallace won 21 Northwestern Conference championships and remains the only Gary football school to win a sectional championship in 1989.

With the Hornets' situation in limbo, West Side's football program picked up South Bend Washington instead of playing its city rival.

"As far as I know (Lew Wallace) is still going to have football," Gary schools spokeswoman Sarita Stevens said. But she confirmed that a final decision on whether Wallace would be a school next school year has not yet been determined.

"I hope so," Lew Wallace football coach Al Williams said when asked if his Hornets would have a football team next school year. "I'm the wrong person to ask. But I'm hoping so."

If Wallace is closed, West Side would be the only high school with an athletic program still controlled by the district. That could bring a lot of talent into one school.

Jason Johnson coached West Side to a historic season in football last fall. The Cougars made it to the second sectional championship game in school history, falling to E.C. Central 46-44 in an instant classic.

Nine players from the program got college scholarships.

But in all this glory there was also a Gary-like flat tire. The IHSAA took two home playoff games away from the school because the facilities were deemed unplayable.

The Gary school board spent $20,000 to purchase new goal posts, new 25-second clocks and to ensure two light banks that had faltered during the regular season were ready. This was all done at the end of the regular season.

"You can't make up for 15 years of neglect in two weeks," IHSAA Assistant Commissioner Robert Faulkens said after inspecting the grounds.

A sad decline

Johnson was a standout at West Side before playing in the NFL. What he's seen in his life has been unthinkable. The feeder programs for Gary youth are no longer around.

Johnson would like to see club sports, in all sports, taught at the elementary schools in the city. He believes athletics are a great way to keep young students off the streets and out of crime.

"What our kids did last year was amazing," Johnson said. "We had our issues but we made it to a sectional championship game and it seemed like half the city was there. That was great for our kids and great for our community.

"We have to put the things in place to give our children an opportunity."

Angela Hamblin was at the football game last fall. She was a mega-star at Lew Wallace before becoming an All-American at Iowa and a WNBA player. She returned to coach at her alma mater in 2005.

She couldn't believe how far it had fallen.

"I walked in the gym and there were four girls there," Hamblin said. "To see the decline was sad. When I played there were five high schools in Gary and they were all good. There was a lot of talent in the city."

She built up the roster but it kept taking hits. Girls could not come to practice because of a job or not having a ride home or a pregnancy or poor grades.

Hamblin went to Lake Central High School after leaving Glen Park in 2009. She was part of the coaching staff that won the 2011 sectional championship. She never had to give rides home or buy shoes for players in St. John.

"I was more of a parent at Lew Wallace," Hamblin said. "I could just relax and coach when I was at Lake Central."

Hamblin still lives in Gary and is coaching at Frankie McCullough Girls Academy, where her two daughters are talented young players. She wants to see athletics rebound in her hometown.

She loved watching West Side's girls basketball team get to the semistate this year with freshman Dana Evans leading the way. She was pleased to hear that West Side will play in next season's prestigious Hall of Fame Classic in New Castle.

But twice before Rod Fisher's program was invited to play in the HOF and he never got the letter. He said he found it after the deadline on a tall pile on the athletic director's desk.

Gary schools have never had full time ADs. Right now, West Side's Vanessa Nichols is also the AD at Lew Wallace.

"That's impossible," Johnson said.

A losing situation

Hamblin spoke about many of the top athletes in the city going to the charter schools or private schools in the area. Many families also are moving to Merrillville, Hobart and Portage, boosting other schools' athletic teams.

Bowman Academy Athletic Director and boys basketball coach Marvin Rea has been the beneficiary of Gary's failing schools. Bowman has played in four of the last five state championship games, winning Class A and 2A state titles.

But he was a standout guard at Roosevelt and led the Panthers to the 1987 state finals, winning the Trester Award for Mental Attitude.

"It's bittersweet," Rea said. "I work for Bowman but I'm a Gary guy. I want the best for all the guys in the city."

Rea played for Heflin at Roosevelt. The two are very close and contemplate what the future holds for the once-powerful schools.

"They've got to hire the right people," Heflin said.

For example, the Gary Holiday Tournament for boys and girls basketball, which started in 1950 at Memorial Gymnasium, was not held this past season.

When city Athletic Director Earl Smith retired in 2013, the man who organized and ran the event was gone.

"We hosted it but Earl Smith ran it," West Side boys basketball coach Murray Richards said. "When Earl retired, no one picked it up. By the time anyone thought about it everyone's schedule was filled."

Both Dorsey and Heflin know there is still great talent in Gary. 

"They have to get discipline back in the schools," Heflin said. "We had it when I went to school here. We had it when I coached here, but now it's gone."

Dorsey concurs.

"You can't worry about athletics when the classrooms and homes are in disarray. It's going to take money to get some good programs going, but money isn't enough. We have to turn back the clock and make our schools like they once were."

The decision on Wallace is coming. The boys basketball team played in the 2010 Class 3A state championship. Last year, under two coaches, the Hornets only played 15 games.

"I've heard they're going to close it," Hamblin said. "I hope they don't. I have so many great memories when I went there. It was a great school."

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