When she was little, Cierra Dillard was the water girl for her brother Joshua and Jimmy’s basketball teams. When her brother Chad, who is six years older, starred for the Gates Chili varsity, she graduated to ball girl.
That’s when she knew.
“When (Chad) made a shot or his teammates made a shot and the crowd would go crazy,” Cierra remembers, her eyes getting wide, “I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Dillard has done it, all right. Done it so well that her teams have played in four straight Section V championship games and won two of them (state runner-up twice). Done it so well that she’s respected by her coach and teammates and opposing coaches, too. Done it so well that on Friday night she could become just the 20th girl in Section V history to reach the 2,000-point mark. Dillard has 1,980 points.
“When the game’s on the line she wants the ball,” says Hilton coach Jeff Eichas, whose 10-6 team hosts Dillard and the Spartans (12-4) on Friday. “Other kids might be scared of the moment because they’re afraid to mess up. She relishes it. Put it this way: You don’t see her hiding in those situations.”
This season, Dillard has to have the ball in her hands. Gates Chili lost its two other top players, point guard Kori Bayne-Walker and shooting guard Diona Johnson, off last year’s state runner-up squad. Dillard’s a fifth-year starter and three-time All-Greater Rochester pick, but this is the first time so much has rested on her shoulders.
The 5-foot-10 guard headed to the University of Massachusetts is averaging 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 3.9 steals. She’s coming off Saturday’s school-record 46-point effort in an 88-79 win over Buffalo’s Cardinal O’Hara. It was her third 40-plus point game this season. She has topped 35 points three other times.
Dillard also had 10 rebounds and nine assists on Saturday and made 20 of 22 free throws. She’s accounted for 45 percent of her team’s points this season.
“She knows when she needs to be selfish,” says senior guard Samantha Heiler, the Spartans’ No. 2 scorer at 8.8 points per game.
“Cierra understands this season we’re going to live or die with her,” Gates Chili coach Tara Grazadei says.
Being selfish hasn’t been easy for Dillard, who loves to pass the ball. It’s one reason LeBron James is her favorite player. “He makes everybody better,” says the 18-year-old who carries a 3.2 grade-point average. “That’s what I try to do.”
Like James, she can beat teams in different ways. Dillard can shoot, drive, rebound and pass. Her versatility and style is similar to former Rush-Henrietta and University of Miami star, Shenise Johnson, who many consider the best player to ever come out of Rochester.
“Just even being mentioned as one of the best in Section V is an honor,” Dillard says.
That’s when she recoils a bit. She gets embarrassed by compliments.
“She’s actually very humble,” Grazadei says. “If I say, ‘You changed our program here at Gates.’ She’ll say: ‘Whoa, coach, it’s because of you, too.’ She’s always giving other people credit.”
As intense as she may be on the court, Dillard is fun-loving off it. “I’m a regular kid,” she says. “I’m goofy.”
She is the player at a team sleepover that’s most likely to be applying the whip cream to someone else’s face if they fall asleep early.
“She’s not just a teammate, but a best friend that you can go to about anything,” Heiler says. “She is someone I look up to and I know the whole team does. She’s one-of-a-kind.”
The youngest of five children, she says her parents, Cheryl Rose and Jimmy, have helped her career immensely. Her mother, in particular, has sacrificed so much time, Dillard says, driving her to camps or extra workouts or traveling to AAU tournaments around the country. Her brothers, of course, helped mold her as a player, but so has her sister, Jamara, 29, and brother-in-law, Christopher Nicholson.
Nicholson has helped Dillard develop better post moves, she says.
“Basketball has been my sport since I came out of the womb,” says Cierra, recalling a picture of her and Chad when she was about 2 years old. In it, she’s holding a basketball. “I’ve always wanted to do this,” she says.
For six seasons, Grazadei has been with her every step of the way. She was Dillard’s junior-varsity coach as a seventh-grader, then took over varsity when Cierra was an eighth-grader trying to figure out how her admittedly “raw” talent could help varsity. The Spartans finished as sectional runner-up to Fairport that year (2010), but with all of their key players returning the bar had been set.
“It taught us at a young age that we can do amazing things,” Dillard remembers.
Back then, her game could be erratic. Her outside shot also was spotty, but she was a good ball-handler so she relied more on driving to score. Eichas admits the game plan then was to try to get Dillard into foul trouble and take as many charges as possible. That’s where Grazadei comes in.
“She just really helped my basketball IQ, my decision-making,” Dillard says.
They share a special bond. “I can’t thank her enough for everything she has done for me,” says Dillard, who wants to major in communications and broadcasting. “She doesn’t take any crap … (but) you can talk to her about anything. She always been there for me and I love her. I’ve been truly blessed to have her as much coach.”
The feeling is mutual.
“She’ll come across as very competitive on the court, which is how we want her to be, but in reality she’s like a little teddy bear,” Grazadei says. “But she gets upset over things. She hates to lose. She’s definitely a player that’s going to be a legend at Gates Chili and I am so glad to have been a part of it.”