Mariah Nunes Rams in the pros

Written by Daniele Franceschi; Photos by Alex D'Addese, Mathieu Belanger

Mariah Nunes always believed she could go pro.

There was, however, doubt and apprehension, which is often common for student-athletes who struggle to find a home at the post-secondary level.

Nunes, 24, began her collegiate basketball career at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey, an institution which currently holds NCAA Division I status.

The appeal of playing Division I basketball is often a primary pursuit for many high-level hoops prodigies hailing from Canada. Given the scope and reputation of the NCAA, there is immense pressure for promising Canadian prospects to migrate south of the border for the purposes of refining their craft at the collegiate level.

For Nunes, however, the appeal of playing D-1 basketball was eventually displaced by a natural desire to be happy. Basketball, after all, is a sport, and fundamentally, sports are meant to be enjoyable.

“I wasn’t happy at Fairleigh,” admitted Nunes, a five-foot-10 combo guard. “The coaching style didn’t work well with me as a player. I just felt very undervalued and mistreated. I was looking for a program where I would feel welcomed.”

Enter Ryerson University, an institution which, at the time, was in the midst of a significant Athletics overhaul.

Nunes was first alerted to Ryerson by her former club coach, who spoke very fondly of then-second-year Rams bench boss Carly Clarke.

Nunes’ motivation for returning to the GTA was two-fold: in addition to seeking a suitable destination to resume her collegiate playing career, the Ajax native felt compelled to move closer to home in order to tend to her ailing father.

“I remember speaking to my former club coach and telling her, ‘I’m looking for a good coach.’ I also wanted to be closer to home because my father was ill at the time,” explained Nunes, recalling her initial introduction to Ryerson. “She was very complimentary of Carly (Clarke). Although they (Ryerson) were still building, she was confident that we’d be a good team.”

After sitting out much of her first season due to transfer regulations, Nunes made her long-awaited Rams debut on January 5th, 2014. The former Bill Crothers S.S. standout appeared in 14 games during her debut campaign, ranking second on the team with a point-per-game average of 13.3.

There is a profound difference, Nunes asserts, between Canadian and American collegiate basketball. It does not, however, stem from skill level alone. There are disparities, she contends, between the style of play popularized in the United States and the brand of basketball encouraged here in Canada.

“In the U.S., there was a lot more ISO (isolation) ball. It was definitely geared towards athleticism. In Canada, there’s a lot of team basketball. It’s very team-oriented,” stated Nunes. “Ball movement is emphasized and everyone is more involved (in Canada).”

After struggling to find her comfort zone south of the border, Nunes quickly emerged as a key contributor for a resurgent Rams program. Within the span of three seasons, from 2013-16, the Rams underwent a radical transformation, highlighted by the program’s emergence as a legitimate national contender.

As a senior, in 2015-16, Nunes appeared in 25 games, averaging 12.9 points, 4.4. rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, while guiding the Rams to their first OUA title in program history. At nationals, the Rams, buoyed by Nunes and fellow seniors Siki Jez and Keneca Pingue-Giles, produced their best result in program history. Ryerson’s lone post-season defeat, in 2016, came in the USPORTS – formerly CIS Final 8 – national title game, an 85-71 loss at the hands of Saskatchewan.

Reflecting upon her time at Ryerson, Nunes describes the Rams’ 2015-16 campaign – the team’s triumphant OUA title victory and near-historic stint at nationals – as “surreal.” Additionally, for Nunes, the Rams’ rapid ascension through the USPORTS ranks served as a form of personal vindication, a means of quieting those skeptics who questioned her decision to abandon the NCAA and pursue her pro aspirations in Canada.

“It’s really fulfilling and gratifying. Coming back home was a pretty big risk,” said Nunes. “I had to overcome a lot of mental doubts. It just goes to show that our efforts paid off. We knew we could be a special team. We used our doubters and skeptics as motivation. Going to nationals our first year, we didn’t do very well, but that helped us grow and prepared us for the following season. We knew what level we needed to play at. It definitely helped us grow.”

Now in her second pro season, Nunes is currently suiting up for Leganes, a second-tier professional franchise located on the outskirts of Madrid, Spain. There were times, Nunes admits, when she contemplated quitting basketball. There were instances, even, when her passion for the sport appeared to be dwindling.

However, despite the struggles, physical, emotional or otherwise, Nunes stuck with it. And today, the ex-Ryerson standout is very happy she did.

“There were several times when I wanted to quit basketball. Coming home, that was a point when I was losing my passion for the sport,” explained Nunes. “I was doubting it even at Ryerson while I was dealing with injuries (and other forms of adversity). I always felt like I could chase it. When I made it (to the pros), it was very surreal. I’m happy I was persistent and stayed with it.”

Nunes, in many ways, is a trailblazer. She and former teammate Siki Jez are the only players in recent Rams history to turn pro following graduation. Since arriving in Spain less than two months ago, Nunes has made a concerted effort to forge relationships with her new teammates.

Through five games this season, Leganes sits at 5-0 and are currently tied for first place in their conference.

“My team, I love them. They’re awesome,” gushed Nunes. “I’ve only been here for a couple months but it’s been incredible. My teammates, they’re very caring. We’re a tight-knit group.”

Earlier this year, in the midst of preparing for her second pro season, Nunes was named to Canada Basketball’s Development Women’s National Team. The selection came as a pleasant surprise for the Ajax native, who had never previously suited up for Canada.

After struggling to earn playing time at the Under-24 Four Nations tournament in Japan, Nunes emerged as a prominent figure for Canada at the FISU Games. Appearing in six contests, Nunes averaged 8.2 points and nearly three assists per game.

“I was truly honoured to represent Canada. It was a different level of basketball,” said Nunes, reflecting upon her international experience this summer. “A lot of the concepts they threw at me, I hadn’t practiced. I feel like a lot of it was basic but I hadn’t done it. A lot of the technical stuff was mentally draining. It was difficult at times. I had to push myself to another level for sure …. It energized me.”

From a development standpoint, Nunes’ desire to improve, both physically and skill-wise, has never been greater. Off the court, Nunes is an avid fitness enthusiast. She is the owner and founder of Rich Fitness, a training organization, and has become famous for her intense Richfit boot camp sessions.

A criminology graduate, Nunes never envisioned herself embarking on a career in the health and fitness industry. But after many years of experimenting with various training tactics, Nunes began to develop a natural affinity for health and wellness. Evidently, training plays an integral role in the growth and maturation of any high-level athlete.

Nunes’ business, however, isn’t geared towards grooming aspiring athletes. Her passion for the fitness industry stems from its ability to nurture people’s health and well-being.

At the end of the day, regardless of what obstacles life may present, there is no substitute for one’s health. Therefore, it is imperative that we, as human beings, do everything in our power to care for our bodies by developing good habits.

“There’s nothing more important than your health,” emphasized Nunes, discussing her foray into the fitness industry. “I enjoy motivating people, getting them into a routine and helping them reach their goals. Lately, I’ve been really focusing on my fitness journey. I had a pretty bad sweet tooth. I didn’t pay attention, because even if I ate poorly, I would always work it off. But I realized that what you put into your body is important. I felt so much better after eating well and changing my diet. I realized that by eating poorly, I was neglecting my own personal development.”

Nunes credits a great deal of her success on the hardwood to the changes she has made within her own fitness routine. Being in optimal physical condition plays a vital role in achieving longevity as an athlete. Nunes, unlike a lot of athletes her age, has identified this reality and through the implementation of a strict training and dietary program, has positioned herself for sustained success.

But this is only the beginning for Nunes, because basketball doesn’t define her. It is merely a vehicle through which her determination and resilient disposition are exemplified on a macro scale.

The truth is, basketball or otherwise, Nunes will thrive no matter what she does, because there is no substitute for passion and resolve. From the NCAA to Ryerson and now, the pros, Nunes has made her mark by exhibiting a desire to learn and evolve that is incomparable to her peers.

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