GARY | All Omar Vazquez needed to hear were three little words from his wife: "they need you."
With that, Vazquez became the Lew Wallace girls basketball coach last season. In a year he has turned the Hornets from the doormat of the Northwestern Conference to a team with three times as many wins.
"That was the sentence and she said 'don't let some fool come over and keep the foolishness,'" Vazquez said. "My wife was right, they just need direction. She said a lot of positive things about them, so I said 'OK.'"
"When I first met him, the way he was so strict with us and how he handled us, I knew something positive was going to come out of it," senior Alexa Dennie said.
Vazquez has turned around programs before. He won 215 games as the boys coach at Wirt and at Indiana Northwest, he took the volleyball team to the conference tournament in his second season.
He knew a 12-win season could happen, but it almost didn't.
As the season started, the School City of Gary hadn't approved Vazquez's contract. The coach sat out the first three weeks of the season, including the first game, waiting for that approval.
Assistant coach Ron Hearne took over the team for the first three weeks.
"I felt (the school board) was so unorganized with that," Dennie said. "We were so used to him, that it messed us up a little bit at the beginning. We were unsure of ourselves because he was the glue that kept us together."
"We went into the season three weeks behind," Vazquez said. "As the season progressed, the practice situation isn't the best. But I have a great group of resilient players, and like back in the wild west, they circle the wagons and fight off the Indians as much as you can, and they have been great on that."
Vazquez said he fights a losing battle for court time with the boys team, which has won the last three sectional titles. He said he hopes for an hour or hour and a half of gym time each night.
"That's why I keep using the word 'great,' because they really are great kids, they're resilient," Vazquez said.
The formula for success is seemingly simple. The Hornets have athletes, but what they lacked was stronger basketball knowledge and discipline. Vazquez provided both.
In past years, players were allowed to come and go to practice and games as they pleased, Dennie said.
When Vazquez arrived, he only played those who showed up to practice, and sat the players who refused to obey rules.
"Mathematically, I only need nine players for a JV game and a varsity game with the five-quarter rule," Vazquez said, "so once players started to see themselves on the bench, they knew either we commit or we won't see any playing time."
His program has 10 core players with as many as 22 through the ranks.
The Hornets played 21st Century three times, and three teams from Indianapolis. They beat Roosevelt for the first time in seven seasons and topped Gavit for the second time in three years.
Last season, their average margin of defeat with a 4-10 record was 18.6 points. This year, their average margin of victory is 16.5 points.
With the sky the limit, the Hornets have high hopes. Lew Wallace drew a bye in next week's Griffith Sectional, and will play in a semifinal game at 6 p.m. on Feb 8 against the host Panthers, the only other team in the bracket with a winning record.
Putting their names on a sectional trophy would be only the beginning.
"We want to get to state," sophomore Brionia Haynes said. "It's going to take the hard work and people who come to practice, ready to be committed."
The last Lew Wallace sectional title came in 2004, coincidentally the last time the Hornets finished with a record above .500.
"We want to make it to regionals," Dennie said. "We've got to do something to prove Lew Wallace is (back). If we don't make it to state this year, it'll be next year without me."
"We're having a whole bunch of fun (this year). It's fun blowing people out. It's fun being the underdog and we still feel like the underdog. We're proving a whole bunch of people wrong this year."