By R.L. Bynum
Ciera Toomey first marveled at the beauty of the UNC campus when she was 10, traveling home to Pennsylvania from a Pinehurst golf tournament.
Toomey thought she’d just play golf for the rest of her life and remembers liking the idea of moving to North Carolina at some point to take advantage of the terrific golf options and better weather.
The five-star recruit and No. 3-ranked player in the Class of 2023 committed to North Carolina on Monday night and will indeed head to the Tar Heel state. But a “life-changing” breakout AAU season with NEPA Elite three years later before her freshman year in high school dramatically changed her focus.
Although she finished fourth in the state high school golf tournament as a sophomore, she will come to North Carolina for 3-point shots instead of tee shots.
“As I was growing up, I always said I was going to move to North Carolina,” said Toomey, who is the highest-ranked player to commit to the women’s program since No. 3-ranked Diamond DeShields in 2013. “It sounds crazy, but throughout the recruiting process, I seemed to forget that. I always loved the idea of being in North Carolina and going to UNC.”
That 2016 trip for a drive, chip and putt competition in Pinehurst exposed her to the state and the campus in Chapel Hill.
“We stopped both there and Duke and I just loved the feeling that I got from UNC’s campus,” Toomey said. “We went up to the Old Well, and we walked through that little area. And it was just such a beautiful campus from the little bit we saw. And now being there [again], it’s just a beautiful campus all around.”
The pretty campus was the start, and the trajectory of the Tar Heels program after three seasons under Coach Courtney Banghart made UNC even more attractive. Toomey followed the team closely as they finished 25–7 and gave No. 1 South Carolina its toughest game during the Gamecocks’ national championship run.
For Toomey’s dad, Patrick, and the rest of the family, Banghart made the decision easy.
“Everything I read about Coach Banghart? I thought, ‘Man, she’s a good coach, and she’s a person that you want your kids to be led by, and that was where it started,” he said. “And then — when Ciera was being recruited and UNC came into the mix — I was like, ‘Ah, this is perfect for her.’ To be around her and to meet her in person, and to be able to talk to her on the phone. It’s always upbeat and straightforward … honest. This is what we’re going to do and this is the direction we’re going in. And so, from day one, dealing with her has been great.”
Ciera Toomey quickly developed a rapport with Banghart. She remembers their first conversation being great and thinking that Banghart was very personable.
“She is so easy to talk about literally anything and she just knows a lot about the game and she knows how to explain it well and I think that shows in her coaching,” she said. “She doesn’t go straight to degrading people. She explains why something happened or what you could have done differently and I think that’s something that I really liked about her coaching style.”
She also likes the brand of team basketball she’s seen from the Tar Heels in the numerous games she watched last season.
“It’s just a certain style where everybody is able to help offensively and defensively and they’re very versatile,” Toomey said. “No one’s limited to inside and the ball is not four out, one in. It’s five players on the court working to their strengths. I think that’s something that will cater to my game.
“Just seeing what they do already and seeing the pieces they have for the future years when I’m there, it was a style that I really liked and I could really see myself playing in,” she said.
Saying no to UConn
Many top girls high school stars quickly change their thinking once national power Connecticut comes calling, particularly when they don’t live that far away. Dunmore, Pa., is only about a 3½-hour drive from Storrs, Conn.
The Huskies were in her final three, along with Vanderbilt, coached by Raleigh native and UConn alum Shea Ralph.
Patrick Toomey said that he’s not worried about the eight-hour drive to Chapel Hill, which he plans to take frequently.
“The idea of her being down there, the distance is counterbalanced by how high we think of the program and she’s just going to get taken care of,” he said.
She could have gone to perennial power Connecticut, with its 11 national titles. But joining a program that won a national title in 1994 and is building to become that sort of national power was appealing.
“That was always in the back of my mind,” Ciera Toomey said. “I think it would be really cool to do something special with the team that they have and the people that are coming this year. Next year, with my class, I think that all the pieces are coming and I think they’re honestly going to be a great program. They already are. You saw what they did this year. I really just think that that’s something that I can be a part of and help with. I just really think that UNC is a special place and I think we honestly have a chance to do it.”
She did answer UConn’s call and made an unofficial visit for the Huskies’ season opener on Nov. 14 against Arkansas. But by the time she made her unofficial visit to Carolina in early February, Toomey had decided she wanted to be a Tar Heel and never made an official visit to UConn.
She didn’t want to lead any other school on and said taking any other official visits would have felt wrong.
“Once I kind of had an idea that I wanted to go to UNC, I knew that that was the place for me. So, it made saying no a little bit easier, personally,” said Toomey, who called a UConn assistant coach on April 6. “But it was still a tough phone call to make. They were great to me, and they were always great people and I was very happy that they gave me the opportunity. But, sadly, it just wasn’t the school for me.”
She wanted to get that phone call, as well as a call to Ralph, out of the way so that she could enjoy a fun weekend in Chapel Hill. Toomey and her family traveled to North Carolina on Thursday for her official visit, spent much of Friday with the players and coaches in the Carolina program and committed to the Tar Heels on Saturday morning before attending the spring football game.
There were hints but UNC didn’t know until Saturday
On April 11, Patrick Toomey retweeted a tweet suggesting big Carolina women’s basketball news might be coming soon.
“I guess I remember retweeting it, but I didn’t really read into it too much,” he said. “My daughters were all yelling at me [Monday] night that I kind of gave it away.”
That had many Tar Heels fans hopeful and Huskies fans pessimistic on message boards, but Banghart didn’t know Toomey’s decision until Saturday.
“They were really surprised and I was surprised that they didn’t have an idea,” Ciera Toomey said. “I kind of thought I was giving it away for a while. But they were just so happy and it made Saturday a lot more fun.”
She said meeting Coach Mack Brown “was awesome” and she also met a few men’s basketball players, including Puff Johnson and RJ Davis. She thought it was “really cool” when Armando Bacot quote-tweeted a tweet about her commitment with two eye emojis.
Toomey marveled and cheered on Alyssa Ustby’s kicking exhibition, wishing that they had punt, pass and kick competitions in Dunmore. Toomey’s dad, just like Ustby’s father, wouldn’t let her play football in seventh and eighth grade when coaches saw her throw a football and asked her to try out.
Toomey might give Ustby a run for being the most versatile athlete on the team. She was a Little League baseball pitcher in the summer of 2014 and helped her team win a title. That only lasted one season because of the AAU basketball schedule.
Hectic, energy-filled, decision-making February weekend
Her decision was sealed during a very busy five-day stretch.
After her Dunmore team blew out Holy Cross 68–33 on Friday night, Feb. 4, she flew to North Carolina with her mother, former Franklin & Marshall College star Carrie Bowen Toomey. They were in the Smith Center that Saturday to see UNC’s men lose to Duke 87–67, then watched the Carolina women throttle Miami in Carmichael Arena 85–48 on that Sunday. After a day of rest, she led Dunmore to a 72–23 thrashing of Old Forge on Tuesday.
The Tar Heels’ blowout looked familiar. She shot 62.7% last season and averaged 18.5 points per game. Those point totals would have been much higher but her team rolled by so many opponents that the starters often didn’t play in the second half.
“Even though UNC had lost the game it was still just such a cool experience to be there with Duke in the Dean Dome and watch the women crush Miami the next day,” said Toomey, who has lost four games in three high school seasons. “It was awesome. I mean the support there? They always say there’s something different about UNC. Just that game and the men’s game, they both showed me that. It was a lot of fun. I mean, we got to kind of see the behind-the-scenes part, too — that I’ll be experiencing — and that was really cool. And it was just a lot of fun. It reminded me of how my team gets ready for games.”
The next week, she knew where she wanted to play.
“I just remember talking to my friends about the visit and just how I was feeling because I don’t overshare much,” she said. “I just knew when I was talking about it, that it was a place that I was really passionate about and that was the only place I could see myself after that.”
She had a good feeling after all her college visits but nothing like this.
“I really just had a different feeling after getting home. Right when I got home I was like, ‘that’s where I’m going to go’ and that’s where I was everywhere else,” she said, meaning that she was excited right after every college visit. “But, for them, it never really went away whereas the other schools would go away after a day or two. But for them, it never really went away and I just started watching the games. I watched every game, anything I could for Carolina and I just fell in love with the program.”
Patrick Toomey made sure during the process that his daughter wasn’t just looking at basketball in making her decision and accounting for lifestyle, academics, social life and knowing that she’d be happy. He constantly played devil’s advocate, asking questions about each school when her list was narrowed to eight — including Duke, Maryland, Northwestern and Penn State — in October.
“I wanted to be sure that she was sure,” he said. “And she just got to a point where she said UNC’s it. So, probably for the last month, she pretty much knew.”
Knee injury followed by quick assurances from UNC, moral support
The junior season of her high school career ended with a terrible knee injury before halftime of her team’s 40–39 season-ending loss to Jim Thorpe High School in the Class 4A state quarterfinals.
“Right when I went down, there were so many things going through my mind and one of them was just losing everything that I’ve worked hard for and they quickly reassured me that that was not the case,” Ciara Toomey said of all of the Carolina coaches, who came to her first-round tournament game even though she wasn’t going to play because of an injury.
“All the schools did, but they were really there for me,” she said of UNC. “They immediately offered to help as much as they possibly could. It was just a different level of support. And I really felt it and my family felt it. And, even though I already knew I was going to go, that was just quite a reassuring factor. It just showed a lot of support and I really appreciated it.”
The injury has also meant that she isn’t playing AAU ball this summer and her senior high school season is in doubt.
An infection delayed surgery to repair a torn right ACL and a partially torn MCL that was supposed to be done last week. She’s now scheduled to have that surgery May 5 at the Rothman Orthopaedic Institute in Philadelphia.
“The strength coach and athletic trainer at UNC will definitely be helping to make the process go smoothly as much as they can,” she said. “Right now, I’m just going to focus on recovery. A lot of people are asking if I’ll be back for next season and I really hope to be. But I can’t fully assure that yet. Everyone’s recovery time is a little bit different.”
She has the benefit of the friendships already forged with two future Carolina teammates who missed all of last season with right ACL tears: Teonni Key and Kayla McPherson.
“It was nice to talk to them because they both know the physical aspects of it, but they know the emotional aspect of it, too,” Toomey said. “And they’re great. They are willing to talk whenever. And I think that that’s another thing that’s going to connect us — just being there for each other now that we know how the other feels. [Key is] way ahead of me. So, I’ll definitely be asking her questions along the way and just looking for her support.”
Toomey said they’ve given her a better perspective about the rehab process that she’s about to go through.
“Definitely. They’re willing to help in any way,” she said. “So, I think I’m going to take advantage of that for sure. And I think, like them, I will come back stronger.”
Toomey can’t wait to play alongside Key when Carolina will have the rare ability in women’s basketball to play two 6–4 players together.
“I think, with the system that Coach Banghart has, our games are both really complement each other,” Toomey said.
Basketball skills emerge early
Patrick Toomey first realized Ciera’s basketball talent when she was in third grade.
“She was playing up with fourth and fifth graders and holding her own. I’m rooting for her and all that, but I’m kind of blown away at how natural things came to her,” said her dad, who coached her in softball and noticed her athletic ability. “As she was getting into junior high, you’re at a point where we’re going to AAU tournaments and my wife is getting comments from people saying, ‘we’re seeing something here.’ ”
Carrie Bowen Toomey had a lot to do with Ciera developing guard skills. In coaching her in Biddy basketball leagues, Ciera was always the point guard even though she was the tallest player on the court.
“Instead of just making her stand out in the lane and act like a post, she gave her the ball up front and said, ‘I need you to handle the ball,’ ” Patrick Toomey said. “And she really ran with that and developed the skills. Always amazed me in everything that I saw.”
Her sister, a rising senior at Rider College, and her mother were both post players and knew that they didn’t have control of the ball much and this gave Ciera a different basketball experience.
“I was always around the game and dribbling and shooting whenever I could,” Ciera Toomey said. “So, once she saw that I was able to dribble, she put me in that position and I really enjoyed it and I distributed the ball well for my age. Even though I was the tallest player, she allowed me to control the game.”
She had that role until middle school when she got taller, although she still was able to deftly handle the ball. Even last season, she sometimes brought the ball up the court for her AAU team.
That summer before Toomey’s freshman year is when the trajectory of her athletic career took a dramatic shift from golf, which she first played at age 7, to basketball.
“It was right after I had kind of grown, so I’m still at guard and I was still really tall,” she said. “So, I was able to do things inside and out and I feel like that was the first season that I really got to face up against kids older than me. I was playing with people that were two grades above me and we were really successful. And so whenever you see success, I feel like you just get a good taste in your mouth for whatever you’re doing.
“That season really just gave me confidence that I needed to pick basketball over golf,” she said. “And then my freshman year of basketball, I really enjoyed it and high school basketball is a big thing in our school. So, that season I really enjoyed it and it was a lot of fun. And I would say those two were kind of the deciding factors. Before high school started, I knew I was going to play basketball instead.”
She’s continued to work with former St. John’s player Kevin Clark, her AAU coach, to make sure that she keeps getting better.
“I work with him a lot on being versatile, strengthening those skills, even though I am so tall,” she said. “We do ball-handling a lot and outside shooting. He knows what the college level is like and he knows how much versatility can help. So, we really just focus on that and I think it all just kind of goes back to my mom allowing me to handle the ball when I was younger.”
Toomey said that it’s accurate to call her a stretch-five and compares her game to Breanna Stewart, who won four national titles and four NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player awards at UConn.
“Me and Coach Clark have watched a lot of film on Breanna Stewart have analyzed her moves and the counter moves that she makes to create space for herself,” Toomey said. “So, I would say she’s kind of been the biggest influence on the moves that I make.”
Fans will have to wait until the fall of 2023 to watch Toomey in Carolina blue. But it will be worth the wait.
Photos via @ciera.toomey on Instagram