No matter what stage she is playing on, forward Nairimar Vargas-Reyes is living her dream.
The six-foot graduate student is now in her fifth and final year of college basketball and is poised to play a much bigger role for the 2022 Stony Brook women’s basketball team. However, playing for the Seawolves this season will not be the biggest platform that she has stepped onto.
Vargas-Reyes was born in Camuy, Puerto Rico. When she was two years old, her mother decided to move with her to the United States and settle in New Jersey. While living there, a young Vargas-Reyes adapted well to her new environment. She learned how to speak English fluently, but that came at a cost: she regressed in her first language.
Vargas-Reyes’ family does not speak English, and learning a new language affected her ability to communicate with them in Spanish. To help solve the matter, her mother moved her back to Puerto Rico when she was 11 years old.
“I was forgetting to speak Spanish,” Vargas-Reyes said in an interview with The Statesman. “My mom was like, ‘We’ve got to go back, because you need to be able to communicate with your family.’ I needed to just keep the Spanish going.”
Upon returning to her home country, Vargas-Reyes got into sports. She comes from an athletic family, and she credits her father for getting her into basketball.
“He’s been hooping since he was a child, and he motivated me to start playing,” Vargas-Reyes said. “Mostly all of my family members have been involved in sports, but mostly basketball, so that’s what took me into playing basketball.”
Vargas-Reyes also gave volleyball a try due to her mother’s time as a volleyball player. However, basketball had her heart. When she fell in love with basketball at 11 years old, she decided that she wanted to play at the highest level possible: the WNBA.
Vargas-Reyes stayed in Puerto Rico for the rest of her childhood and teenage years, maintaining her culture while also making a name for herself on the basketball court. She went to high school at Colegio Adianez de Guaynabo, a private school in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.
She led her varsity basketball team to back-to-back tournament championship titles in her final two years there, which included an undefeated 35-0 senior season. She was selected the Most Valuable Player of both championship victories.
“They made me better,” Vargas-Reyes said. “When I came into the private school, my defense wasn’t strong enough and they made me get better at defense and shooting skills and everything.”
In 2017, Vargas-Reyes received the opportunity to represent Puerto Rico in the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) U19 Women’s Basketball World Cup, where she played alongside future Stony Brook teammate India Pagan. The next year, Vargas-Reyes played again in the FIBA U18 World Championships in Mexico City, where Puerto Rico finished in fifth place.
“It was unbelievable,” Vargas-Reyes said. “I never thought that I was going to make the national team. I still had to work on my skills. But when I was called out ‘You made the team, you’re going to have this experience,’ I was like ‘Wow, this is my time to just shine.’”
Playing for her national team against some of the world’s best players showed Vargas-Reyes how high the bar is to reach the next level. She said that playing in FIBA tournaments helped her realize how hard she has to work to reach the WNBA.
“That motivated me to just put in the work every night,” Vargas-Reyes said. “I’ve just been working in the dark where nobody sees me, so I can just go out there and shine.”
While playing in a tournament with her high school team in Tampa, Fla., Vargas-Reyes caught the attention of an assistant coach from Florida Southwestern State College. The school was a junior college and the only school to make her an offer. After a positive visit, she agreed to join the team with the hopes of going Division I after.
Vargas-Reyes arrived at the JUCO school in 2018 and made an instant impact. She was named to the all-conference team in both of her seasons there, winning back-to-back Suncoast Conference titles in the process. While she was there, Vargas-Reyes kept her Division I goal on the forefront of her mind. She worked hard and surrounded herself with people who shared her aspirations.
“I’ve always wanted to be one of the best,” Vargas-Reyes said. “I stuck to players who were working towards the same goal that I was working for, and I feel that made an impact with my career.”
Vargas-Reyes received a long list of Division I offers after her successful JUCO run, one of which came from Stony Brook. While trying to make her decision, Pagan reached out to Vargas-Reyes about Stony Brook’s team being interested in her. However, her decision to commit to Stony Brook was ultimately a family-oriented decision.
“I wanted to be close to my mom, who lives in New Jersey,” Vargas-Reyes said. “I’ve always wanted to play the highest level of basketball, which was Division I, and I worked for it. My dream finally came true.”
She was a role player in her first year with the Seawolves, making 19 appearances and averaging 3.7 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. Despite playing a smaller role, she helped the team make its first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament in March 2021.
“I believed that it was a learning process,” Vargas-Reyes said. “When you’re new in any situation like this, at the highest level, you have to learn to sit back and just watch and see what you could get better at.”
Vargas-Reyes played in 23 games in 2021-22, posting higher field goal and three-point percentages while averaging more points per game. She also averaged 6.2 total rebounds per game, good for ninth best in the America East Conference. The team continued to succeed, earning an automatic bid to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT).
Vargas-Reyes exercised her fifth year of eligibility and returned to Stony Brook this offseason after participating with Team Puerto Rico in the World Cup over the summer. They finished in eighth place, making it the first time Puerto Rico has ever made the top 10. She believes that her most recent experience with the national team is going to help her have a big final year with Stony Brook.
“For this season, I think it’s going to help me a lot,” Vargas-Reyes said. “Being able to play against the best players in the world was just eye-opening for me because now that I’ve experienced being there, it made me realize how much I have to work to get to that level.”
The Seawolves graduated some of their top players last year, making it likely that Vargas-Reyes will now be a regular starter for the group. No matter her role for this year, she plans to use her body more and be more physical on both ends of the court.
“Individually, I’m working on being more aggressive on the offensive and defensive end,” Vargas-Reyes said. “I’m just trying to get downhill, use my body more, and just be able to knock shots down when I have the chance to.”
No matter the aftermath of the season, Vargas-Reyes will be graduating with her master’s degree in coaching. She wants to continue with basketball from a different perspective.
“I just want to be able to show and teach younger kids about basketball and how hard you have to work if you want to be an elite player,” Vargas-Reyes said.
With her final season about to tip off, Vargas-Reyes has a clear goal in mind.
“We’re working towards winning the NCAA championship; everybody wants that.”