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Miami High School dedicates gym to legendary Vargas family

The mural at the Vargas Family Gym at Miami High School was painted by local artist Myron Starr. Photo provided

Miami High School recently capped off its campus overhaul with a celebration dedicating the refurbished sports facility—the newly renamed Vargas Family Gym—in honor of longtime basketball coaches Richard “Dickie” Vargas and his son Ken.

The December 16 celebration was made even sweeter by the Vandals varsity basketball team getting its first win of the season against crosstown rival Globe High School in a lopsided victory during an otherwise challenging year for the program.

The retirement from the sidelines of Ken Vargas, who will continue on as a math teacher at MHS, closes a long chapter of Vandals sport history, capping a combined 71 years of Vargas coaching in Vandals green.

“The ceremony was so nice,” Vargas says. “It was the chance to get together with the family. A lot of my dad’s brothers and sisters came, and it was a great opportunity to sit down and hear all the stories about things that happened back then.”

The event was held in the school’s auditorium, which was rehabilitated under the leadership of longtime superintendent and multigenerational Vandal Dr. Sherry Dorathy and former Principal Glen Lineberry.

Ken Vargas took the reins of the basketball program from his father in 2001 after a long and distinguished career on the sidelines. Ken was just one of the many Vargas family members to play for the school, and even coached in his father’s system as a young teacher in the Miami Unified School District.

Dickie and Ken Vargas coached the Miami High School basketball program for more than 70 years combined. They were also star athletes and several generations of the Vargas family participated in the program. Courtesy photo

“I got to coach with him one year when I was teaching at the junior high and they needed a freshman coach,” Vargas says. “I was able to do a freshman season with him while he was coaching varsity, and that was really amazing. It was very special.”

The evening was filled with emotional memories of the Vargas family’s long and storied tenure at MHS. And in a historic turn, the Vandals basketball teams—from the varsity boys to the JV girls—had huge wins against the Tigers.

The boys varsity team won 66-37, boys JV won 68-17, the freshman Vandals won 62-24, and the girls varsity beat the Lady Tigers 102-23, with JV Lady Vandals winning handily by a 67-23 count.

“It actually felt really good, because that was the first win of the season for us,” says Miami basketball and football coach Brandon Powell, the man who has been tapped to follow in Ken Vargas’ footsteps. “On top of beating Globe, it was our first win, so it was just good all the way around for us.”

Powell’s own father, Bobby, was on the sidelines with Vargas and has continued as an assistant coach at his son’s side. Bobby Powell, a MHS graduate of 1966 and member of the Minor League Football Hall of Fame, has coached with his son going back to Brandon’s time coaching hoops for his alma mater.

The younger Powell was a star quarterback for the Tigers and football coach in Globe for 15 years, as well as a basketball coach for a decade.

He switched over to coach Miami football 10 years ago and had a very successful run as manager of the Vandals baseball team. He tapped one of his former baseball players, Rico Lorona, to take over that program and moved to the basketball sidelines when former Athletic Director Shawn Pietila moved to the principal’s office at the beginning of the current school year.

Pietila asked Powell if he was interested in applying for the coaching position after Vargas hung up his whistle, and after a vigorous and formal interview process, was hired for the position.

“Kenny Vargas is a Miami legend, and I have some big shoes to fill,” Powell says. “It’s crazy. I sit here and tell myself that I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of history and, in a lot of aspects, being the coach at Miami is thrilling and humbling.”

Powell says he’s fully committed to his role as a Vandals head coach, although he still “bleeds a little orange.” But even in a down year at Miami, beating his alma mater and local rival can salvage an otherwise lost season.

That scenario played out in November when the Vandals reclaimed the coveted Copper Kettle football trophy in an otherwise lackluster season.

“I thought we had a disappointing season, but a lot of people in town praised and loved me because we won that one game. It’s crazy to me,” Powell says. “It really tugs on me a little bit when I see Globe not doing well, but of course when I’m playing them, I really don’t care at that point.”

Powell says the gym dedication was a historic and heartfelt moment for many people, but doesn’t think the enormity of the situation has sunk into his young athletes yet.

“I’ve always preached the nostalgic-ness of Miami and did the same thing when I coached at Globe, because the programs were just as old over there,” Powell says. 

“And I always tell the kids, when you put on a jersey, you’re not the first one to wear number 3 or number 24, or whatever, as a Miami Vandal. There’s been hundreds of guys wearing this uniform.”

He did manage to get the point across that night, though, and his charges responded in kind.

Coach Brandon Powell, pictured with players Nick Curiel (42) and Kyle Monroid (20), will have some big shoes to fill with the retirement of longtime Vandals Coach Ken Vargas. Courtesy photo

“No matter who we played that night, we had to win because of the situation,” Powell says. “In fact, when we broke huddle that night, instead of saying ‘Vandals’ we said ‘Vargas.’”

As to Ken Vargas, he is proud of the new look of the entire campus, particularly the gymnasium that now bears his family’s name.

He plans to remain in the classroom for the foreseeable future and work on getting back into shape. He will also take the opportunity to spend more time with his wife Evelyn—who he says was as important to the program as he—and watch his grandkids play in the sports he loves.

While Vargas is happy to pass the torch on to another family coaching tree that is firmly ensconced in the long sports history of Globe-Miami, he still has to resist the urge to leave the stands and join Powell on the sidelines.

“It’s really difficult for me to sit in the stands while my brain just keeps rolling and rolling and rolling,” Vargas says. “I told my wife that I need a bleacher chair with a seatbelt so I can stay up here.”

Several generations of the Vargas family at the dedication of the Vargas Family Gym at Miami High School including Dickie’s brothers and sisters and their children and grandchildren; Ken’s brothers and sister and their children and grandchildren; Ken’s kids – Aubrie, Ana, Andrew and their kids. Also, Superintendent Dr. Sherry Dorathy, Director of Innovation and Learning Dr. Richard Ramos, Administration, and School Board Members. Courtesy photo

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