When you grow up in a basketball family, it’s common enough to look back at family photos and discover your 4-year-old self holding a ball.
That was Ciara Duffy, St. Thomas More’s very own Swiss Army Knife, a 6-foot-1 wing who can put the ball on the floor and go to the basket, or post-up with the best of them, or step out and unspool a three-pointer for good measure.
After years of playing alongside accomplished siblings and even last year’s First Five Player of the Year — teammate Alexys Swedlund — Duffy, a University of South Dakota recruit, cemented a legacy all her own with a forcible senior season that culminated in the Cavaliers’ third-straight state championship.
With seven siblings and basketball-loving parents looking on — and in a program where the concept of kin is intertwined with the game itself — Duffy’s basketball ascension to the top of the South Dakota basketball mountain has truly been a family affair.
“It’s been one of the great highlights that we’ve had as a family to be part of the St. Thomas More basketball community — on the boys side and girls side,” said father Dan Duffy, an Argus Leader First Five honoree in the award’s inaugural year in 1979.
“We had two boys, and then five girls in a row. The girls really started to play behind their two brothers. It was very competitive. They wanted to be on the court and they didn’t want to take a step back from them. Starting with Caitlin, then Moira and Ciara, they all took the competition on our front court very seriously.”
The oldest, Brendon, had an affinity for the game and Liam, the next in line, carried his passion to a co-Mr. Basketball honor along with future Jackrabbit Zach Horstman. Then came the girls, led by Caitlin, whose impressive career helped deliver the Cavaliers their program’s first state crown. Caitlin went on to Colorado State, and younger sister Moira parlayed her high school playing career into a scholarship with the University of Sioux Falls.
Next it was Ciara’s turn. Given the seasoning she got on the court outside her house — to say nothing of mixing it up with a talented Cavaliers cast — it’s not hard to see how Duffy’s game has taken off.
“You always say that your teammates become like family, as much of a cliche as that might sound, but to have actual family members on the team — I don’t think anybody pushes you harder than a sibling,” Ciara said. “It started when we were younger and we would have games of horse of one-on-ones. It wasn’t all fun and games — we were really competitive with each other. But at practice when we were guarded each other, we just wanted to make each other better. That was our goal.”
Though her stylings are unique to her own skill set — at 6-foot-1, Ciara is the longest of the Duffy daughters (so far) — in some respects her game is a midpoint between Caitlin and Moira.
Moira excelled as a defender, using length and post-up moves with the best of them. Caitlin was an athletic slasher who could score and distribute. Ciara excels in both areas.
“I was able to watch them both play,” Ciara said, “so I tried to emulate their games as much as I could even though I could really live up to what they did.”
Call it deference from a younger sibling, because Duffy established herself as an elite player in her own right.
“The length that she has on the outside helps her get a lot of tipped balls and steals,” Kandolin said, “but on the inside she also has the ability to push against bigs and control the boards.”
Duffy’s willingness on the defensive side — combined with her physical tools — makes for a Division-I wing. Her offensive toolbox, by comparison, makes her special.
“Her shot selection is phenomenal. A lot of plays are mixed with what we want for an inside look and outside look,” Kandolin said. “Her ability to outside if its there or put the ball on the floor and create — it just amazes me as big as she is — how she can get to the basket and finish. She really has the ability to finish.”
This season Duffy averaged 19.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, two assists and 2.7 steals per game. She also led the Class A tournament in scoring with 23.3 points a game and an impressive 61 percent shooting from the field.
That same tournament saw teammates Dru Gylten and Kennedy Kirsch find the leaderboards in assists and steals. Cousin Shannon Duffy, an athletic and gritty defender, helped the Cavaliers limit opponents to low totals each time out. And there was Ciara, embracing her moment as the lead dog.
Somehow, Duffy often lit up the stat sheet in unassuming ways.
“When she goes out and scores and you get to the end of the game and she has 28 points,” Kandolin said, “it seems like it’s a quiet 28. You get done and you look at the book, and you see that she scored from everywhere. But those other things that she does — the rebounding, shot-blocking, steals — it really compliments the roundness of her game.”
Duffy also has roundness of personality. When it’s game-time, no one is more focused. When there’s time to unwind before and after practice, other aspects of her nature come out. There’s a silly side, whether intentional or not. The state’s best player embraces self-deprecation.
Ciara recalls a day at practice when she came out to shoot around and her shorts were, inadvertently, on backward. Everybody got a good laugh, Duffy said. The attitude wasn’t much different growing up playing horse against her siblings in the front yard. There’s a time for competition, and a time to have fun.
“The cauldron of family basketball played a very significant role of forming her into the player she became, and I think she’d be the first to look at her coaches and teammates and know how fortunate she’s been to be able to play with them,” Dan Duffy said.
“But I also look to her siblings as playing a real vital role in her evolution as a player. I would have to say at their core they all have a passion to want to win. They want to win more than they want anything else on the court.”