Five-star UNC recruit Toomey leads team to state title 10 months after ACL surgery

By R.L. Bynum

A year after enduring the pain of tearing her right ACL and the anxiety of not knowing what would come next, Ciera Toomey led Dunmore High School to its first Pennsylvania Class 3A state title on Thursday night.

There were doubts about whether the highest-ranked of Carolina’s talented four-player incoming freshman class would recover in time to play her senior season. She still is working her way back to being the player she was before the injury but it was remarkable that Toomey even played this season.

“Right when it happened, it kind of felt like the world came crashing down [on me] as someone who was playing basketball at a very high level for so long,” said Toomey, a 6–4 five-star recruit who ESPN ranks No. 4 in the Class of 2023. “Thankfully, I haven’t had to face much adversity in my life before this. It just seemed like the end of the world.”

Also joining the program in that freshman class are 5–7 point guard Reniya Kelly (No. 30 in ESPN’s rankings), 6-3 center Rylee Grays (No. 90) and Indiana Player of the Year 6–1 wing Laila Hull.

Toomey, who plays with a brace on her right leg, worked herself back through a hard, rigorous rehabilitation process, playing only a few minutes in several games before finally playing extended minutes for the first time on Jan. 9. 

She didn’t play an entire game until the state semifinals. Toomey then collected 14 points, 21 rebounds, five steals and three assists in her team’s 42–30 victory over River Valley in the state final.

“It’s just been a really cool week,” said Toomey, who averaged 10.3 points, seven rebounds and 15 minutes per game. “If you would have told me that this was going to happen a year ago, I probably would have laughed at you. But I’m so happy we got it done. It was crazy. Because out of all the seasons, this was probably the least I’ve scored but we still got it done.”

It came after Dunmore (27–3 this season) had to forfeit a quarterfinals game in 2021 for COVID-19 reasons and lost two rounds after Toomey’s injury in 2022. In addition, Dunmore lost some good players from the previous season, making the title even more impressive.

With Dunmore ahead by eight with four minutes left, Toomey blocked a 3-point field-goal attempt to spark a run that put the game away.

“This girl dropped her pivot foot, and I was like, ‘OK, she’s about to shoot this,’ ” Toomey said. “The shooter was a righty; she was a little bit on the shorter side. I just jumped up. I blocked it, thankfully not hard enough for it to go out of bounds, and my teammate scooped it up.”

There was plenty of motivation to play since Carrie Toomey, her mom, took over as head coach. She served as an assistant coach for the previous three seasons under Ben O’Brien. He left for Division III Scranton after 14 seasons, leading that team to a 28–1 record.

“That was always in the back of my mind during my recovery, wanting to actually play for her and wanting to win the whole thing for her, too. I’m super-happy that I got to play for her,” Ciera Toomey said.

After winning the title, Coach Toomey said that although her daughter was back, “she’s not Ciera yet.”

Ciera Toomey says she could have scored many more points but missed a lot of shots. It didn’t matter to her as long as her team emerged with the championship.

“I’m not fully back to the player I was before I got hurt, just with the step-backs and being able to be a guard but also a post,” Toomey said. “I just need to really work on my shot and work on being able to hit threes again. Not that I couldn’t hit them. That wasn’t really part of my game once I came back.”

Toomey, who fell in love with North Carolina during a golf trip to Pinehurst, did most of her scoring inside and nearly outrebounded River Valley by herself. But Coach Courtney Banghart saw why Toomey was accurately described as a stretch-five before the injury.

“It wasn’t a huge part of my game,” Toomey said of 3-point shooting. “It was just getting the whole body connected. That’s going to take a little bit longer than being able to get to the glass and score. I kind of just migrated that to be the main part of my game. And Coach Banghart was telling me we’ll get the 3-point and mid-range back in check once I get down there.”

Toomey was happy to see UNC assistant coach Itoro Coleman at the championship game.

“It was really cool to just see her in person. You know these people over the phone, so even just to see them at a game, it just means a lot,” said Toomey, who also talked to Coach Courtney Banghart on Friday. “I actually had a really nice call with her, just talking about the game, talking about everything. Just really excited.”

Banghart told Toomey that Carolina would thoroughly test her physical progress to ensure she was where she needs to be.

“She also said we’re going to ease into things,” Toomey said. “Your whole life changes when you first get to a school, so they don’t want it to be overwhelming, but they want us to be ready by the season.”

After seeing how Carolina’s program carefully handled the return from torn ACLs for Teonni Key and Kayla McPherson, she’s convinced that picking UNC was the right choice. After both missed the 2021–22 season, Key missed the first two games of last season and McPherson the first 20 as the program made sure they didn’t return until they were fully ready to play.

“That actually meant a lot to me that they were making sure that you’re caring for these players as people, not just treating them like players and rushing them back,” said Toomey, who added that Banghart has assured her that she wants players to be safe at all times. “So, before the season, they’re going to make sure everyone’s completely healthy, everyone’s where they need to be. So that was really good to see.”

Toomey doesn’t expect to arrive in Chapel Hill until the third week in June, but she says that support from players and coaches has been coming for months.

“They told me that it was going to be really hard,” Toomey said of Key and McPherson. “They made sure I knew what the process was going to be like going into it. So, that was helpful. And then, throughout the way, I had a lot of questions for them because they had gone through the same thing. So I use them as kind of a good resource to make sure that I was on track to see that what I was feeling was normal. And they were super-helpful. It was really nice to be able to talk to them.”

From three states away, the UNC staff — led by head strength and conditioning coach Caleb Krueger and head athletic trainer Jodi Schneider — has guided her recovery from her May 5 surgery. They’ve monitored her conditioning program and the kind of strength workouts she was doing.

“Jodi would check in to make sure that the workouts were good for my knee and make sure that they were working that leg specifically, but then Coach Caleb would make the workouts,” Toomey said. “In a matter of a month and a half, I gained so much muscle just through the things they were sending me. Not even that they were these crazy lifts, but they just were working me in the right way. And I felt so much stronger than even before.”

Once she regains her pre-injury shooting stroke, Toomey said she’ll be better than before the injury.

“I’m just excited to be down there fully in their care,” Toomey said. “Them sending workouts is amazing, but I can’t wait to just be down there, have them at the lifts watching form and just get to get to experience Carolina basketball. I can’t wait.

“I’m much stronger now than I was even before I got hurt, so that was actually an improvement in my game,” Toomey said. “The conditioning was probably the hardest part. I’m very thankful for the process of having to go through all that adversity because I think it made me a lot stronger as a person, mentally and physically.”

Toomey is eager to transition from long-distance guidance to being in Chapel Hill.

Even before playing her first game for Carolina, she’s already experienced the fan support that she can expect.

“I rarely use Twitter, but I feel like every time I open it up, it’s just something positive coming from [Carolina fans],” Toomey said. “For these people that you’ve committed the next four years of your life to just show a crazy amount of support, that just meant so much. There are new things every day that just made me realize I really picked the right school for me and I just can’t wait to be down there and be playing for them.”

The Tar Heels fans are, no doubt, just as eager.

UNC roster

Here is Carolina’s projected roster with their class for next season listed.

YearReturning playersPos.Height
RS Soph.Kayla McPhersonPG5–8
SeniorDeja KellyPG5–8
Soph.Paulina ParisPG5–9
SeniorAlyssa UstbyF6–1
SeniorAnya PooleF6–2
RS Soph.Teonni KeyF6–4
SeniorAlexandra ZelayaF6–4
Incoming transfers
SophomoreIndya Nivar (Stanford)G5–10
SeniorLexi Donarski (Iowa State)G6–0
JuniorMaria Gakdeng (Boston College)C6–3
ESPN rankIncoming freshmenPos.Height
30thReniya Kelly (4 star; Alabama POY)PG5–7
Laila Hull (Indiana POY)W6–1
90thRylee Grays (4 star Alabama POY)F6–3
4thCiera Toomey (5 star)F6–4
Sydney Barker (walk-on)PG5–7
Class of 2024
10thBlanca Thomas (5 star)C6–5
3rd in Minn.Jordan ZubichG5–11
Class of 2025
23rdLanie Grant (4 star)G5–9
College careers overPos.Height
Eva HodgsonPG5–10
Ariel YoungW6–1
Malu TshitengeF6–3
Outgoing transfers
Kennedy Todd-Williams (Ole Miss)W6–0
Destiny Adams (Rutgers)F6–3

Photo by Tim Drewes


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