The Grind, presented by Bank of Clarendon: Sumter High's Croskey working to return better than ever after ACL tear


If you've followed basketball in Sumter County in the last half-decade, there's a strong chance you know the name Kiara Croskey.

Affectionately known as Ki, the junior point guard for Sumter High has been a mainstay on the court, making the rise for varsity as a seventh-grader before leading the Gamecocks to the SCHSL 5A state championship game as a freshman.

Ki's rise to basketball stardom ran into a speed bump this spring when she tore her ACL at an AAU tournament in Alabama, but she's been working harder than ever to get back on the court before the end of her junior season.

"I just can't wait to show the world, or just people in general, when I come back, it's definitely gonna be worth it," Croskey said. "My comeback is going to be way better than my setback."


Ki started playing hoops at an early age. She started to take the sport more seriously in third grade and started playing AAU ball as a fifth-grader. By the time she hit the sixth grade, she was confidently telling Sumter High's head girls basketball coach to get ready for her.

"I kid with her all the time about this," SHS head coach Jeff Schaffer said. "I was watching a middle school basketball game, and she walked up to me and said, 'Hey coach Schaffer, I'm Kiara Croskey, and I'm going to be playing for you coming up soon.' And I was just like, 'Well, that's nice, little girl.' I didn't know who she was from Adam; she just walked up to me from the clear blue, and I got a kick out of it."

The following summer, she was eligible to practice with the varsity team, and Schaffer saw firsthand why she was so confident.

"She came up and worked out with us, and I got a peek at her with some of the returning varsity players and knew this was one of those kids that had no business playing middle school basketball; she needed to come up and play with us," the coach recalled.

Schaffer knew she should be a varsity player in practice, but when summer games started, he knew he had a star in the making.

"I really got the first inkling of the player she would be when we were playing up at York at a summer league game," the head coach recalled. "There was about 30 seconds left, and we were down two. We were working the ball back and forth, and she was out there. I had a junior out at point guard, and she gave it to Ki. I'm thinking, 'What the heck are you doing giving it to a seventh-grader with the game on the line?'

"Ki went in, made the contact, put the ball in her left hand and scooped it in on the left side, got fouled and went to the foul line and knocked the foul shot down, and we won the game. I knew we had something special here. I even told her mom, 'Get ready, your phone is going to start ringing off the hook because she had a huge future ahead of her.'

Ki's mother, Christy Dennis, always knew her daughter had a knack for basketball. Dennis grew up playing the sport but drifted away from basketball during college. When Ki started playing, Dennis dove back in the deep end. She started coaching her daughter's team at the YMCA before coaching JV at Sumter High as Ki was making her leap to varsity.

Of course, most sports parents think the world of their children, but Dennis didn't just see Ki as her daughter on the court.

"I'll tell anyone, and not just because she's my child, but she has a true gift for the game. She has a true love for the game," Dennis said. "The way she analyzes the game is sometimes mind-blowing to me. Her IQ for the game just kind of blows me away, and it still blows me away at times."

When Schaffer asked the pair if Ki would make the jump to varsity, the response was fairly quick.

"It was an instant yes," Ki said.

There were some nerves, sure. Ki admitted she still gets anxious before games, even when she's exploding for 44 points like she did against Chapin in the first round of the 5A playoffs last season. Still, she knew she was ready.

"I was pretty excited but also kind of scared at the same time, not knowing what I was getting myself into. At the same time, I knew I was gonna learn and have fun," Ki said of jumping to varsity. "You have to pick up on a lot of things fast. There's a lot of plays to remember; you've always got to be able to play defense. Just knowing your role on the team because everybody has a role in a team, and if everybody do they role, you'll be successful."

Ki had some veteran guards to learn from early. Her biggest influence was Ki'Ari Cain, who now plays college ball at Gardner-Webb University. Other standout guards like Tamara Brown, CeCe Wells and Dynasia Jackson all helped her hone her craft.

"Ki'Ari Cain really helped me. She just told me just be myself and just be confident and everything is just gonna go my way," Ki said. "By my fifth game in my second year, I was like, 'OK, I got it.'"

Schaffer was also a major influence on the young Gamecock.

"He tries to be mean, but deep down, he's really not," Kiara said, laughing. "He's really soft.

"Being around him as a coach is very good. He's always making sure you're doing the right thing, always wants the best for you. People who are always positive around you, you're just gonna want to be positive, and that's a good thing. That's what you want to surround yourself with."


Ki was playing varsity in the seventh grade, but she didn't fully take over a starting role until her freshman season.

That's when she became a star.

As a freshman, Ki was spectacular, earning All-State honors by averaging 19.4 points per game. She added 6.4 rebounds per game, a point of pride for her as one of the smallest players on the court. She also had 4.3 assists and 5.9 steals per contest.

She led the Lady Gamecocks to new heights as a team, too.

Sumter High played their way into the SCHSL 5A state championship against Clover. The Lady Gamecocks controlled the game for most of the night but let the lead slip away in the final minutes, falling 40-38. While the playoff run fell short of a title, it remains one of Ki's favorite memories.

"It was a great group of girls. We all had a bond with each other; nobody was ever left out. We always did things together," Ki said. "The bond was just real tight, and nobody could just break us apart. Cherishing that moment, it really meant a lot to us."

Two years later, the loss still lingers over Ki and her SHS teammates.

"It still hurts us. It still impacts us," Ki said. "It was very heartbreaking but, at the end of the day, things happen for a reason. God just didn't want it in our favor at that time, and hopefully we get one one day."

That game drove Ki and the Lady Gamecocks as they made another great playoff run last season. Sumter High made it to the lower state championship, where they fell to Summerville 39-35.

After the loss, Ki was driven to push Sumter even further during her junior season. So far, she hasn't had the chance to step on the court.


Ki played AAU ball with the Upward Stars this spring. She traveled with the team for a tournament in Alabama, and her life flipped upside down.

"I was on a fast break and came jump stop on my layup, and my leg just buckled back," Ki recalls. "I just threw up a shot and I made it, and I just came down and never got back up. I just knew something was wrong. I just didn't even attempt to get up."

At first, Ki hoped the injury wasn't severe. She hyperextended her knee the previous season and thought she may have done so again. The next morning, she knew that wasn't the case.

"When I woke up, I was just like, I cannot walk on it, it hurts real bad," Ki said. "It had to be something way deeper."

She and her mother went to an urgent care in Alabama and weren't able to get a conclusive diagnosis. They would have to wait until they got back to South Carolina to get an MRI before they would get any real answers.

The initial diagnosis was not good.

Ki was told that not only did she tear her ACL, but she also had damage in basically all of the ligaments in her knee.

"As a mother and as someone who played sports, I knew how detrimental that was hearing that news," Dennis said. "We were both in there with tears in our eyes."

After the initial diagnosis, she was told to see Dr. Jeffrey Guy, one of the top orthopedic surgeons in the state. He gave slightly better news. Yes, Ki tore her ACL, but her other ligaments were in perfect health. The confirmation was still hard on the Sumter star.

"It really hurt me. I actually cried in the doctor's office because it really hurt," Ki said. "Just realizing that I wasn't gonna play for a little while, it really hurt me because that's something I love to do."

While Ki was waiting to hear what her diagnosis was, she kept the news of her injured knee quiet. She didn't want to break the hearts of her teammates and coaches.

"At first, I really didn't want to tell (Schaffer) because I knew he was gonna feel some type of way, I knew he's gonna be heartbroken. I knew I had to tell him one day, but when it first happened, I was like, 'No, can't tell him.' Because we didn't know for sure yet," Ki said, admitting that she kept quiet about the injury for a couple of weeks. "When I was in school, I used to hide my brace, take my brace off and go see him, act fine. When I used to leave his classrooms, put the brace back on."

When she finally told her teammates, she received nothing but support.

"They were pretty shocked because they never expect something to happen like that," Ki said. "They were all heartbroken, wishing that I would get better and they were just supporting me along the way."


Ki had surgery on May 16. Two days later, she was beginning her rehab at Ascent Physical Therapy in Columbia.

"The quicker you start therapy, the more likely you're going to be back," Ki said.

She was determined to come back during her junior season. The second she learned that she potentially could, it was her only option.

"When I first heard the news, I just looked it up. 'How long is an ACL injury?' It said 9 to 12 months, so I mapped it out," Ki said. "Six-month mark, you're kind of OK but not really OK to get back on the court. It's like that eight-ish, nine-month area, so I was planning my time when I started therapy up until the nine-month mark. Once I realized that my nine-month mark was still in basketball season, I was like, 'OK, I have to have potential to play.'"

Ki said her recovery has been relatively straightforward, but it hasn't always been sunshine and rainbows. Some of the major checkpoints, like jumping or running, came with mental hurdles that had to be overcome.

"There have been times in therapy I was like, 'I'm not going to be able to do this,'" Ki admitted. "I remember one time I needed to do leg raises but with weights on my leg. I was texting my mom, and I was like, 'I don't think I'll be able to lift up my leg.' Because I couldn't feel my leg. So, I was like, 'Mom, I'm not gonna be able to lift up my leg. I can't do it.' She was like, 'Just trust yourself, you got this.' I kid you not, a few minutes later, I could just lift my leg up easily. It was crazy."

The most difficult was jumping for the first time. After injuring her knee with a jump stop, an understandable fear crept in.

"I was overthinking a lot. What if my knee buckles,'" Ki asked herself. "I was just like, 'You can't think like that, just do it.' Once I got in that mindset, I was like, 'I've got this, it's fine.'"

Dennis was there every step of the way, encouraging Ki to overcome those mental hurdles.

"I remember the first time she had to run at physical therapy. She was a little hesitant," Dennis said. "I said, 'I know it's easier said than done. I've never torn an ACL, so I can't say I understand, but all I can tell you is if you play scared or have fear that you're gonna hurt it again, your chances of re-injuring yourself again is high. You have to trust it. Trust that what you have done thus far, your knee is strong enough.'"

Now Ki is running with ease. She finally got her new knee brace, which will allow her to take part in more basketball activities. She will ease her way into practice and hopes to be back on the court by the end of January.

Ki credits her family for helping her through the challenges of rehab.

"Family has always been a big thing to me. They always help me through rough times, especially with my injury like this," Ki said. "They definitely gave me the good and the bad. They just gave me the full hard truth. My family always kept it honest with me so, whatever they say, I just take it in and try to understand where they're coming from because they're always going to make sure that I'm OK."


While Ki hasn't been able to play, the Lady Gamecocks had to adjust to life without their star point guard. That was difficult for a competitor like Ki to witness, even if she had faith in her teammates.

"Sitting watching every game being played, it's just like, 'Man, I wish I could be out there,'" Ki said. "Throughout the summer, if I didn't have appointments or anything, I was just there. Being with my teammates, they always got my mind off my injury. It just made everything better."

Ki has also learned a lot from being on the bench during games. Schaffer was quick to note that she sometimes beats him to giving constructive criticism to her teammates during games. She's able to see the game differently from a new perspective. Dennis is proud of the way her daughter has handled the situation.

"Seeing her on the sideline, encouraging her team, cheering for her teammates and giving them those pointers from the bench has been great because I don't think all players could actually do that, knowing that they couldn't be out on the court," Dennis said. "To see her still being engaged and being a part of the team, sitting on the bench and encouraging them, that's huge."

Ki also saw how people on the outside viewed her impact on the program.

Without Ki in the lineup, Sumter High was No. 10 in the preseason polls from the South Carolina Basketball Coaches Association.

"It was very disrespectful," Ki said. "It really didn't hurt me. It really just counts what you do at the end of the season, so the rankings really didn't mean that much to me anyway, but it was really disrespectful to say that we got it that far last year to say that we're at 10.

"The team is not all about me; we have other good players on the team, and with just one of them out, we dropped that much. It's just disrespectful."

Sumter High has also faced some tough challenges without Ki, most notably losses to two of last year's biggest playoff foes, Lexington and Summerville.

"It's better to have those losses now because in the playoffs, you don't get a second chance," Ki said. "We look at it as what we could do better the next time we play a team like this or when we play them again. It kind of helps us learn in the future what to do and what to expect."

While Ki wants to rejoin her teammates as soon as possible, she knows she needs to wait until her body is ready. Dennis gives her that reminder whenever it's necessary.

"I tell her, 'You want to be at least close to 100%, don't you? I always told you we can't half behind do things, so if you can't give all of yourself, why are you gonna go out there and risk it with only a part of yourself?'" Dennis said.


Ki still has a year left of high school basketball after this season, but she has her sights set far beyond prep hoops.

She got her first Division I offer as a freshman and has received interest from multiple Power 5 programs. Over the years, she's gotten closer with Dawn Staley, the head coach of the defending national champion South Carolina Gamecocks. Ki said getting to know Staley was proof that she'd made a name for herself in the basketball world.

"Everybody calls me Ki, so when outsiders come talk to me, they say Kiara. With Dawn, she was like, 'What's up, Ki?' When she said that, I was like, 'Oh wow, not too many people call me by my nickname,'" Ki said. "When she said that, I was like, 'Oh yeah, she really knows me now.' It just really meant a lot."

But Ki still has things she wants to accomplish at Sumter High.

Of course, she has her sights set on getting that state championship, but she has more than that in mind.

The milestones are nice. She reached 1,000 career points last year and would love to hit major marks for rebounds and assists. However, she doesn't want her legacy to be statistics.

"I want to be recognized here, like having my jersey put up or something like that," Ki said, referencing the honor that current South Carolina guard Talaysia Cooper received at East Clarendon last season. "Something so the people can remember me here and my legacy will always stay here."

Dennis can't wait to see where her daughter goes next.

"I don't want to put a cap or ceiling on her," Dennis said. "I wouldn't do that to any athlete from a coach's perspective because you can learn something new every day, you can develop your game. I don't think there's a limit, it just depends on how far she wants to go."