Pelegrin Vargas Jr. never saw his father play volleyball. As he says, the nine months he was in his mother’s womb corresponded with the final season of professional volleyball Pelegrin Vargas Sr. ever played.
And yet, the legacy of Senior, a legendary player in Puerto Rico, has shaped Junior’s life immensely, leading him down a road that has so far included landing a scholarship to attend Purdue Fort Wayne, where he is now a star senior, and stints with the Puerto Rican national team.
“In our family, everything revolves around volleyball,” the younger Vargas said. “We go to school and it’s really important for us, but for us to think about what is the next tournament, we’ve got to save our money to go to nationals, like that is our vacation, that just shows that we’re all committed.
“The best way for me and my brother (Jose, a high school junior) to pay back to our parents is giving our best, and try to make them proud.”
And surely, Vargas’ parents — Pelegrin Sr., who was the MVP of the Puerto Rican professional league in 1989, and his mother Ana Colorado, a watercolor artist and university fashion design professor — are extremely proud of their elder son.
First because he earned and accepted a scholarship offer to attend college on the mainland.
The legendary UCLA men’s coach Al Scates offered Pelegrin Sr. a spot on the UCLA team many years ago as he was just finishing high school, but Vargas chose to stay closer to home. His son, who goes by Pele, made a different choice.
“He said ‘No, that’s too far,’ and he’s from the country, so he didn’t know much English and he was afraid, you know?” Pele said. “So for us, together, to do this, it was big time for our family and for (my dad), he was really happy.”
Purdue Fort Wayne is up to No. 10 in the AVCA Division I-II Men’s poll as the Mastodons get back to action Friday against Urbana and then begin MIVA play Saturday at Loyola.
Vargas, a 6-foot-4 outside hitter, missed the first two matches of this NCAA season while competing for Puerto Rico in the North American Olympic Qualification Tournament in Vancouver. After starting all three matches in Canada, where Puerto Rico went 1-2, losing the Olympic bid to Canada, Vargas rejoined the Purdue Fort Wayne team just before it traveled to Northridge to face CSUN.
All he did against CSUN was lead with 22 kills, hitting .588, in a 3-0 victory. Two nights later, despite a loss to UC Santa Barbara, Vargas once again hit better than .500.
That weekend, Purdue Fort Wayne coach Ryan “Rock” Perrotte recalled saying in that Vargas was the best player in the country.
“Right, wrong, or indifferent, that was my opinion,” Perrotte said.
No doubt, Vargas is in the conversation for that title — following his performances against CSUN and UCSB, Vargas was named MIVA offensive player of the week and AVCA national player of the week. For that matter, last year, Vargas led the conference with 406 kills on the year, and the MIVA named him preseason player of the year heading into 2020.
Three and a half years ago, however, when he first arrived in Fort Wayne as an 18-year-old college freshman, Vargas remembers feeling a fair amount of culture shock, not only because life in northeast Indiana was quite different from Puerto Rico, but also because he had to adjust to a new version of volleyball.
“You’re like, ‘Oh, I got a scholarship, so I’m going to be starting,’ and that’s not necessarily the case because obviously there’s a lot of good American volleyball players,” Vargas said. “It’s a learning experience for us (Puerto Ricans) coming to the States, discovering new things, learning new customs of what Americans do here with volleyball — and off the court too.”
“(Pelegrin) was a good volleyball player when he arrived, but he had to change a couple of things to his game,” Perrotte said. “Number one, he had to get in the physical conditioning and shape to last at this level … so he’s worked tirelessly to make sure that he’s been at the highest shape possible.
“Number two, he’s had to work on his ball-handling in terms of his serve receive, particularly because of his offensive load. Obviously one of the adages is you serve the best player to wear them down, and that has happened over the last two years because he’s led the MIVA conference in kills. So he’s also improved that part.”
Perrotte, now in his fifth year as the head coach of the Mastodon program, continued, saying Vargas has also grown as a leader.
“He’s not a man of a lot of words, but when he speaks a lot of people listen, and he plays the game with such passion that he leads by example.”
In Vargas’ freshman season, 2017, Fort Wayne went 5-23 — the worst season in program history. Vargas started the first 20 matches of the season before breaking his right wrist and sitting out the remainder of the year.
Richie Diedrich and Matt Zeske were the only other freshman on the roster that year. Zeske transferred to the University of Wisconsin after that season, so Diedrich, a middle blocker, and Vargas are now the only 2020 seniors.
Both remember that dismal 2017 season well, but Diedrich said going through it together made him and Vargas closer friends and better teammates.
“Going on our fourth year, being roommates together, being teammates, it’s just natural we’ve become best friends over the four years,” Diedrich said. “Playing on the court almost every single day, walking back over to the same apartment, cooking in the same kitchen, it just naturally happens.”
Since their freshman year, Diedrich has witnessed Vargas’ evolution into one of the best outside hitters in the country.
“In a way, he’s changed night and day, but at the same time, he’s the same guy,” Diedrich said. “On the volleyball court, he’s hands down the smartest volleyball player I’ve ever played with, but he’s just grown immensely throughout the four years. He jumps higher, swings harder, plays smarter.”
Vargas sees his increased production and skill as a return on the Purdue Fort Wayne coaching staff’s investment in him.
“I didn’t have many (scholarship) offers, and obviously when you see a guy that is not very impressive athletically, it’s tough to put a lot of money on the line and that was my case,” Vargas said.
“I’ve never been a real jumpy kid, too fast, or anything very flashy, but I’ve trusted my abilities inside the court and off the court too, which has led me to this point, so I’m thankful for Rock and JW (Kieckhefer, former assistant coach), and I’m glad it’s been, in some way, a pay back for them. Their trust on me is paying back later on.”
One big factor in Vargas’ growth has been the time he’s spent with the Puerto Rico national team. He got his first opportunity to practice with the national team guys the summer before he started college. He didn’t make a roster that summer, but just being in the gym gave him a confidence boost and opened his eyes to the next level of volleyball.
The following summer, he made a couple travel rosters, but still didn’t see the court much. In the past year, however, as the Puerto Rico team worked hard in hopes of earning a spot in Tokyo, Vargas not only made the team but played plenty, even starting those three matches in Canada for the Olympic qualification event.
“In the international game, that’s where your flaws are seen, because the ball goes faster, guys hit harder, higher,” Vargas said. “That’s where you see what you need to work on and that’s what I tried to do when I came back here in August, work on those things that I saw that I could get better at.”
With all those experiences, added wisdom, and, of course, Pelegrin Senior in the back of his head at all times, Vargas is leading a young group of Mastodons as they pursue what would be the team’s first MIVA Championship and NCAA Tournament appearance since 2007.
In addition to Vargas and Diedrich, the starting lineup includes sophomore libero Troy Gooch, junior middle Tomas Gago, junior setter Frederico Santos, freshman outside hitter Wilmer Hernandez, and freshman opposite Jon Diedrich — Richie’s younger brother.
The elder statesmen of the team have taken it upon themselves to advise and mentor the younger players. Jon lives with Pelegrin and Richie, so they have plenty of time with him, and Pelegrin and Wilmer, also a native of Puerto Rico, had a special bond from the start.
Gooch and Santos, despite being upperclassmen, cracked the starting seven for the first time this year after coming in occasionally off the bench as juniors in 2019.
“We have basically four new faces in our starting lineup,” Vargas said. “But the team just gets along really well and I think we can do great things.”
Since that second weekend of the season when Vargas earned the player of the week title, Fort Wayne took an East-Coast road trip and lost to NJIT and defeated then-No. 12 George Mason. It’s difficult to say where the group will end up come the MIVA Tournament come April and the perhaps the NCAA Tournament in May, but if they make it that far, it will be Vargas leading the way, striving everyday to honor his parents, his island, and his coaches.