Tessa Vargas is listed at 5-foot-5 on the Penn State DuBois women's college basketball roster.
"And 5-5 is stretching it," said head coach Patrick Lewis.
"She's probably 5-3, and probably 85 pounds soaking wet," he said. "I would love to be able to say I recognized this talent, but I didn't."
Photo courtesy of Penn State DuBois
All grown up
Sheffield High School graduate Tessa Vargas (5) is team captain on the Penn State DuBois women’s basketball team in her senior season.
Photo courtesy of Penn State DuBois
‘Electron in a box’
Penn State DuBois shooting guard Tessa Vargas goes up for a shot, while getting fouled, in a team scrimmage game. “She scored on that shot,” said PS DuBois coach Patrick Lewis. “I don’t know how she does it, but she does.”
Penn State DuBois doesn't compete at a Division I, Division II or even Division III level in the Penn State University Athletic Conference. And Lewis wasn't necessarily scouting Vargas when he watched Sheffield High School play back in 2008.
"Tessa did not come to school right out of high school," he said. "She came during the second semester. She sent an e-mail saying she was interested in playing college basketball, 'Can I do that?'
"She showed up the first day of practice in the second semester and she was actually very shy and reserved, and if you know Tessa, that's not her. She lacked a lot of confidence. All I saw was this 5-3, little, skinny ballplayer."
In Vargas' senior season at Sheffield, she was the Wolverines' second-leading scorer at 12.9 points per game. She scored 15 or more points in a game seven times, and 20 or more points three times, including twice hitting 24 points. She finished her high school career with 748 points.
She played on the same high school team with 1,000-point scorer Amanda Craker, who also spent a short stint at PS DuBois.
"I did see (Tessa) play in the Kozell All-Star Game (for senior basketball players in District 9), so I knew she could play, but I didn't know if she would be able to play against a lot of bigger kids," said Lewis.
Vargas was unsure what she wanted to do after high school; that's why she didn't attend college right away.
She knew she wanted to play basketball, though, and hoped the coach would overlook her size, which is just a technicality to Vargas.
"I was really nervous when I first joined the team. I actually didn't play that whole semester," she said. "He put me in maybe two games, a minute or two each game. In high school, it seems easier because all the girls are usually at your skill level; none of them are really too tall. At first, you kind of lose your confidence. The competition in college is a lot tougher; it's a lot more fast-paced."
When Vargas was deciding on a college, she also considered Clarion University or anywhere close to home. She knew she wouldn't play there, and she really wanted to play hoops.
She resorted to clicking on a link - and filling out a Prospective Student Athlete Form - on the Penn State DuBois website.
She said it read, "Recruit me."
"He had recruited some more people and, in my sophomore year, the first two games I didn't start," said Vargas.
Lewis plays everyone on the roster at this level, so Vargas did get the opportunity to play. She played point guard her sophomore season in college, and moved to shooting guard her junior year.
Lewis said PS DuBois is unique for a college team in that, "At this level, we work on fundamentals a lot."
He thinks that helped Vargas because, "She was lacking in her ball handling," he said. "She really didn't have a left hand. She could dribble fast, but a lot of times just out of control."
You can't teach speed.
"Tessa has the speed," said Lewis. "Regardless of her size, she uses her speed and uses it well."
Vargas ended up scoring 250 points for PS DuBois as a sophomore against other Penn State branch campuses, and over 300 points in her junior year.
"She was the first 300-point scorer in a single season that we've had," said Lewis. "It's almost like she transforms into something else on the court and around my players. This year is when she's really come to shine. This year I named her captain, and they feed off her energy."
"In my senior year in high school, I was a captain, too, but it was a lot different in high school - you know everyone," said Vargas. "You already know them. Here, all the freshmen had no idea who I was. I always try to make them feel comfortable. They look up to me to do the right things.
"I knew when I first came to school here, halfway through the school year, I knew what I felt like to be in their shoes." said Vargas. "In high school, I was - during basketball games and stuff -more mean to other girls on the court, very aggressive. Here, though, I definitely know that people look up to me, and I try to lead them."
Vargas admits she's a more talented basketball player than she was in high school. She's come a long way.
Vargas scored 26 points in a 71-26 win over Penn State Scranton on Friday.
"She's like an electron in a box," said Lewis. "She's everywhere on the court."
The photograph of Vargas driving into a much taller opponent included with this story is one of Lewis' favorites.
"That's one of personal favorites because that's what she does," he said. "She scored on that shot; I don't know how she does it, but she does."
Lewis didn't hesitate, however, in saying he is more impressed in how she has improved herself as a person, a leader, a role model.
"She does whatever I ask of her - that's what's really neat about Tessa," said Lewis.
It goes without saying that teammates to opposing players and coaches now take notice of Tessa.
"There hasn't been a game, where she's usually diving into a wall for a ball, I haven't had somebody come up to me and say, 'That No. 5 is something else,'" said Lewis. "She has an attitude, and I don't mean toward me; I mean on the floor.
"She has probably changed more than any player that I've had at DuBois, from Point A to Point B," he said. "She's led by example. It's like a cocoon turned into a beautiful butterfly, because it truly has happened for her.
"She has another year left at DuBois and next year I am hoping I will be able to keep her involved in the program as a volunteer assistant coach," said Lewis.
The thought does interest Tessa, but the Physical Therapy major has one last semester of college basketball.
Her goals: "Keep up what I'm doing right now with hard work," said Vargas, who is averaging over 18 points per game - not far off a point per minute, for 7-2 PS DuBois. Vargas was an honorable mention all-conference selection last year in the Penn State University Athletic Conference, and strives to be all-conference this year. She also wants her team to advance to a small school United State Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA) tournament after the regular season. The USCAA is made up of less than 100 small colleges, community colleges or junior colleges, including PS DuBois.
Vargas' accomplishments don't surprise her former high school coach, Lee Goldthwaite. He and his wife, Rita, follow her games closely, including in person.
"'Don't look past the little one,'" Lee told Coach Lewis back in 2008. "'Don't look beyond her.'"
"She's the fastest thing on two feet," said Goldthwaite, "a great defender, and her shooting has improved tremendously, her strength, her stamina."
"'You gave me the Energizer Bunny,'" Lewis said he told Goldthwaite.
This rough little high school athlete has made people take notice.
"She's grown by leaps and bounds," said Goldthwaite. "She's becoming a wonderful young lady instead of a little girl."