One of the first things James Martinos did when he learned that Nicole Villalta-Barrantes was this year’s Renee Keister Award winner, was to find a 2019 Trenton Monitor story that detailed Keister’s tragedies and triumphs.

After reading the article, Lawrenceville’s Notre Dame girls basketball coach felt his star senior embodied all the qualities Renee and her award stand for.

“Absolutely,” Martinos said. “One of the things [Keister] mentioned was that she really would love the winner to be a kind and caring person who values education. When I read that, that’s Nicole.”

Considering she has a 4.0 grade point average and will be attending Cabrini University to play basketball, she truly does check all the boxes in Keister’s vision for her award winner.

Just ask her.

“I’m really happy Nicole won this award,” said Keister, whose married name is Renee Balke. “She is a skilled and unselfish player and works hard for the benefit of her team. She is a leader, which was evident in the Mercer County Tournament, where she led her team to the finals. I wish her the best of luck in her future endeavors.”

Martinos wanted Nicole to know all about the woman the prize was named after, so he sent her the same story he read.

Villalta-Barrantes quickly discovered that Balke was a woman of faith and courage. A star player at McCorristin (now Trenton Catholic Preparatory Academy), Renee’s lower body was paralyzed for life from an accident at home. Rather than sulk about losing it all, she has gone on to have a successful career and marriage, raising two children who are outstanding athletes.

“When I read about her, it was such an incredible story,” Villalta-Barrantes said. “It was really touching. I was honored just to be nominated for the award and win it. But to hear her story, it made it even more special because of what she’s done, the amount of strength she had and the positive attitude she had. It was incredible to read.”

Nicole was pretty incredible herself during her time at Notre Dame.  

Due to COVID-19 restrictions the past two years, she was the lone player on this year’s Irish team that had at least one full season of varsity experience under her belt. She led the Irish in scoring (12.1 average), free throws made (57), steals (51) and assists (57); and was third in rebounds (102), earning her first-team honors on the Coach’s All-Colonial Valley Conference team.

But that only told part of the story.

“Right from day one, she was talking to freshmen, talking to the younger players, trying to help them through plays,” Martinos said. “We were installing so much with all these kids that were new. Nicole definitely stood out in front and did a really good job helping them learn, along with other seniors.”

And that was only in practice. Her leadership extended into the actual competition.

“If we had a tough game, lost a close one or a kid missed a big shot, whatever it may be, Nicole was able to speak to them and try to help them get through it throughout the season,” Martinos continued. “We struggled at times because we were so young and inexperienced. She would tell me ‘We’re really struggling to understand what we’re trying to create in this part of our offense.’ She and I would talk about how to help them understand what we were trying to do.”

It was a new experience for Villalta-Barrantes, who had always been one of the younger players on her team; even in AAU.

But she embraced the role.

“I loved being able to help any of the younger girls who needed it,” the Bordentown resident said. “If they had any questions I could answer, I would try to do so. I loved being a leader with my other senior teammates. It was such a great experience. Coach Martinos made it a little easier with the way he ran practice; it gave me a little leeway to help the girls.”

In addition to helping others, Villalta-Barrantes also had to help herself try to produce, despite extra defensive attention. She was double-teamed often and was constantly covered by the opponent’s top defender. It could have been frustrating; but Martinos said, “Nicole took it in stride, she just kept fighting and playing.”

Villalta-Barrantes began her recreational activities as a cheerleader. She never went to her older brother’s basketball game, but when her dad brought a ball home to practice with his son, Nicole wanted in on the action.

“I always wanted to be involved with whatever my brother was doing and I just kind of took over,” she said with a laugh.  “When I realized how fun it was I asked when I could play, and in third grade they signed me up and I started playing.”

She has been playing ever since, combining on-court toughness with grace and class, while leaning on her faith.  

“My parents raised me and my brother as very strong Catholics, and we practice going to church,” said Nicole, who belongs to St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish, Hamilton. “My mom always makes sure before I leave for a game we pray, and she makes the Sign of the Cross on me to protect me from injury and things like that. If I’m stressed about something during the day, I’ll say a little prayer. I’d say my faith is very big in my life, which I’m very happy about.”

She is also happy about her college choice, feeling that Cabrini offers everything she desires. It starts with head coach Kate Pearson and goes from there.

“I visited a few schools before that were a little further away,” Villalta-Barrantes said. “When I went to Cabrini everything kind of clicked. I loved how small the school was. I didn’t want something too big because I felt that would be overwhelming.

“Meeting Coach Pearson for the first time, seeing how much she loved her players and how invested she was in helping her players, I knew it was the place for me,” she continued. “Just the mixture of the size, the religious aspect and Coach Pearson and the program in general is what drew me to Cabrini.”

Pearson and her program are not only getting a good player, but a great person as well – the kind of person who symbolizes what the Keister Award is all about.

“She has the kind and caring part that Renee has,” Marinos said. “She’s someone who values her education, she’s a very good student and she’s well-liked in the school. She always just gave maximum effort to everything that she did.”