Cissy Pierce can dunk. Not maybe, not almost. A legitimate toss-it-up-knock-it-down type of dunk. Only a handful of women have the natural talent and ability to throw one down and Stanford's freshman belongs to that select club.
"Yeah, I can dunk when I'm healthy," confesses Pierce. "I've thrown it down a few times."
Standing at only 5'10", Pierce is an unlikely candidate to play above the rim, but her unworldly hops enable her to take the game to new heights. However, Pierce's dunking ability is not the only reason why Stanford Head Coach Tara VanDerveer recruited this talented shooting guard. A combination of athleticism and basketball smarts, along with her knack for breaking down defenses on a dime, made the Littleton, Colo. native one of the most sought-after athletes in the Class of 2004, considered to be the deepest in girl's high school basketball history.
Armed with a deadly mid-range jumper and a never-ending vertical, Pierce enters her first year on The Farm with a versatile and polished game, equally adept at scoring, rebounding or playing hard-nosed defense. However, like every freshman who first steps onto the Division I basketball stage, there are a few kinks that need to be smoothed out. Free throw shooting has historically never been a problem for guards, but Pierce found herself shooting Shaq-like percentages for most of her senior year in high school.
"I definitely need to work on my free throw shooting," Pierce sheepishly admits. "Yeah, it's weird, at one point, I did have a better three-point percentage than free throw."
Free throw shooting aside, the Heritage High School graduate appears to be the complete package that will thrive in VanDerveer's offensive and defensive schemes. And while Pierce has yet to dunk in a game, she has hit a shot few players, male or female, have been able to do during competition: the half-court shot.
Her moment of glory came in February 2002, during Heritage High School's improbable victory over the #1 team in Colorado, Highlands Ranch. Riding a 37-game in-state winning streak dating back to December 2000, Highlands Ranch featured current Division I stars like Ann Strother (UConn), Liz Sherwood (Vanderbilt), and Susie Powers (Notre Dame). With her team trailing by four points nearing the end of the first half, Pierce received a pass from a teammate at the mid-court stripe and threw up a prayer of a shot that banked into the hoop. Pierce ended up with 19 points to lead her team to a slim 66-63 victory.
"They were the best team in the state and we beat them," recalls Pierce. "That was a definite high point (of my high school career). They had a stacked team… my team and I partied all night after that!"
It was evident that Pierce was a talented player, even as a sophomore in high school. That year, she was a participant at the prestigious Nike All-America Camp and was named a Street & Smith All-American Honorable Mention. A dislocated left shoulder would sideline her for much of the following year, but Pierce still managed to play well enough to earn a spot on the All-State Second Team. That summer, she was also invited to partake in the 2003 USA Basketball Women's Youth Development Festival, a round robin tournament that showcased the top 48 prep players in America. Entering her senior year, a healthy Pierce built up her basketball resume that would culminate with a host of awards and honors. After averaging 18.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 4.3 assists a game during her senior year, she was chosen as the 2004 Colorado Gatorade State Player of the Year. In addition, Pierce was voted to both the McDonald's All-America and Parade All-America Teams following her stellar senior season. All the recognition that Pierce has received over the years was the direct result of a lot of sweat, tears, and time spent in the gym.
"It meant a lot to me [to be named as an All-American] because I know I had worked for it and I felt like I deserved it," Pierce says proudly. "Just to be named an All-American in the deepest class ever was extra-special. I took it as a tribute to my hard work."
Despite all the accolades Pierce received during her prep days, she never achieved the one goal that every high school player dreams of accomplishing: winning the state championship. The closet she ever came to holding that elusive trophy was her junior year, when Heritage High School advanced to the Colorado Class 5A State Championship game to face ThunderRidge High School. In a match-up that featured Pierce going toe-to-toe with the talented sister duo of Emily and Abby Waner, the Grizzlies prevailed in a hard-fought 70-60 victory. The Eagles' star player competed well, scoring 16 points on 7-of-20 shooting, but the experience itself was bittersweet.
"It was a thrill to be [in the State Finals], but I kind of look at second place as being first in a long line of losers," Pierce remarks.
Luckily for the athletic guard, she is joining a program that does not lose very often. Despite experiencing lack-luster post-season results in the late-1990s, Stanford has recently returned to national prominence and has once again established itself as a West Coast powerhouse. The Cardinal have won the last four Pac-10 Championships and was a three-pointer away from the Final Four last season. Pierce will play a vital role in upholding the Stanford tradition of success in the future, as she and fellow classmate Candice Wiggins have been anointed the future backcourt for the Cardinal. However, an injury suffered over the summer has hindered her ability to fully contribute early in the season. In June, Pierce was preparing for the USA Basketball Women's Junior World Championship Qualifying Team Trials when she discovered a stress reaction in her foot. The trial hopeful was faced with a difficult decision: she could either continue with the try-outs and risk further damaging her foot or pull out and miss an opportunity to represent her country.
"My doctor said that if I had kept playing on it, it would have developed into a stress fracture and I could have missed my freshman year," notes Pierce. "So I was like, 'Yeah, I'll just miss out on the [trials] and let it heal.'"
With limited participation in pre-season practices to let the injury rest, Pierce is finally starting to find her groove, averaging 11.6 minutes, 3.2 points, and 2.0 rebounds a game, and the coaching staff could not be more excited with her progress.
"[The injury] kind of set her back a little bit. But than again, Cissy brings great athleticism and skill to our team," reveals Associate Head Coach Amy Tucker.
Although the first few months of her Stanford career have been anything but ideal, Pierce never doubted her choice to become a Cardinal.
"Part of me can't believe I'm still going [to Stanford]," exclaims the talented guard. "It's my childhood dream. I'd trade Stanford for anything."
With an attitude like that, VanDerveer had no trouble selling the merits of her program to the high school All-American. Despite the constant presence of basketball in the Pierce household, education had always been a top priority for the Colorado hoopster. Therefore, it comes to no surprise that Pierce's final list of schools comprised of other academically prestigious universities like Harvard, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt. However, the lure of a top education in California, alongside a great basketball program, was too much for the straight-A student to turn down. Her opinion of Stanford was confirmed when she took her official visit to The Farm last September.
"My host was Clare Bodensteiner. She's great… the team was great. They were all so friendly. I love their personalities," gushes Pierce. "The campus is gorgeous. Palm Drive is my favorite part of campus. I got to see the sunset over the cathedral. Oh my goodness… and the California Hills… I just love the campus!"
As Cissy Pierce continues to play brilliantly in the Cardinal and White, Stanford fans will be guaranteed of one thing. With her incredible athleticism and amazing ability to score, the high-flying freshman will give paying customers plenty of jaw-dropping highlights over the next four years. And who knows, Pierce might also end her career on The Farm with the distinction of being Stanford's first female dunker.
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