Gabriel Lazo played for the high school basketball program with the most state championships in the history of Florida.
Four years ago, the former Miami Senior High point guard was coaching on a girls’ basketball team he watched fail to win a single game the year before.
“We had cheerleaders on the team that had little experience playing basketball,” Lazo said. “Some of our girls had a hard time catching passes. But when I got the job, I told people there, ‘we can turn this thing around’.”
These days, Ferguson’s roster doesn’t just know how to pass the ball well.
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The Falcons dribble, shoot and defend better than most and feature some of the best young talent in the state.
One full graduating class after that winless season, Ferguson High is two wins away from what would be the school’s first state championship.
The Falcons (25-7) play Vero Beach in a Class 8A state semifinal Friday night at The Lakeland Center in what will be their first-ever appearance at the state final four – a prospect many couldn’t even fathoma few years ago.
“A lot of people didn’t laugh at me but a lot of them didn’t believe it could be happen,” Lazo said. “It took a lot of time and it didn’t happen overnight.”
Lazo and former coach Andrea Gomez-Zapata helped Ferguson break out of the doldrums during the 2012-2013 season as it finished with a respectable — and winning — 14-11 record.
Lazo was then hired as the full-time coach and led Ferguson to what would be the first of three consecutive regional finals appearances.
“Miami High taught me what hard work was all about,” Lazo said. “I played for some great coaches while I was there and I saw how you build a winning program.
“I wanted to build my own program with my own kids from the bottom up. I could have gone to Miami High to be an assistant coach, but I wanted to challenge myself.”
The first two regional finals appearances ended in defeat at the hands of Lazo’s alma mater.
But after losing to Miami High five times in three years, Ferguson finally broke through this past Friday, coming back to beat the Stingarees on their home court.
“It’s amazing for us because it’s been our coach’s dream and it has become our dream to make this happen,” sophomore guard Natalia Pineda said. “This opportunity can take us really far.”
Pineda, a 3.4 student, has been offered by Stony Brook University and is already being recruited by Princeton, Coastal Carolina, Dayton and FIU.
Senior guard Gio Perez signed with Stony Brook this season, becoming the school’s first girls’ basketball Division-I signee. Perez grew up idolizing fellow Puerto Rican J.J. Barea and Michael Jordan and said she learned the value of hard work from her father, Giovanni, who coached her as a kid.
“To be the best you always have to work harder than the next player,” Perez said.
Perez and the Falcons will be putting in some work again Friday trying to slow down Vero Beach’s 6-2 senior forward Megan Gorman, a Yale signee who is averaging 19 points and 14.7 rebounds per game.
Gorman was Perez’s teammate on their summer travel team, the Miami Suns, and played on a squad that also consisted of Flanagan’s Mikiah Harrigan (South Carolina signee), Dillard’s Jacaira Allen (Mississippi State signee) and Seffner Christian star junior Chelsie Hall.
Perez (15 points per game), Ferguson’s only senior, is one of three guards along with Pineda (14 points) and fellow sophomore Sheslanie Laureano (13) who is averaging in double digits scoring.
Aside from Pineda and Laureano, sophomores Yaire Rodriguez and Mercy Gonzalez have played key roles. Gonzalez will miss the state tournament, however, with a broken finger.
Junior Bria Kingwood, a 6-foot forward, and 6-3 freshman Chayanne Daniels, have been important contributors as well.
“Playing on a team with these young girls helps us a lot,” Pineda said. “We might be nervous at first when we step on the court, but this is going to be a huge experience for us.”