Ciera Cockrell has always known what it is like to play against the best competition.
The Providence Day senior had to bring her “A” game just to keep up with her siblings while growing up.
Her older brother, Ross, 23, was a standout football player at Charlotte Latin and Duke, and was drafted in the fourth round of the NFL Draft in May by the Buffalo Bills, where he is a reserve cornerback and special-teams player.
Her younger sister, Anna, 17, is an all-state and All-American track star at Providence Day, having won eight different NCISAA state championships while rewriting state and school record books in her first two high school seasons.
Not to be outdone, Ciera, 18, has made a name for herself on the volleyball court. The senior captain and standout outside-hitter recently committed to play at Davidson next year.
“I’ve joked around about having middle-child syndrome,” Ciera Cockrell said. “But I’ve never actually felt like I had it at all. Ross, Anna and I have always supported each other 100 percent. We’ve definitely had some healthy competition with each other growing up, but we are also all each other’s biggest fans.”
Ciera, 5-foot-11, is establishing herself as a force on a rapidly improving Providence Day volleyball team.
Ciera had an Observer-area-best 217 kills and a team-best 140 digs for a Charger squad that is 18-2 overall (through Sept. 18) and 2-0 in CISAA conference play going into the final month of the regular season.
First-year Chargers coach Emily Carrara, 29, was a standout and four-year starting setter at Winthrop before she was a college assistant at both Queens University of Charlotte and Davidson.
Carrara says Cockrell just keeps getting better.
“I remember the first day I saw her in an open gym this past summer, and I was like, ‘Oh my, I had no idea how good she actually was.’ ” said Carrara. “I gave her some silly pointer and she looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘Okay coach,’ and immediately did exactly what I said.
“Soon after that, I called Davidson coach Chris Willis and told him how impressed I was with Ciera. They had been looking at her as a right side, but needed an outside hitter. I made sure he knew she could definitely be the outside hitter they were looking for.”
Cockrell had plenty of talent before meeting Carrara – she can jump and reach 9 feet, 11 inches, just 1 inch from a regulation basketball rim – but she believes her new coach is making her an even better player.
“I can’t really express how lucky I am to have a coach like Emily,” said Cockrell, who has a 4.2 GPA. “I learn something new every day. We are a lot more focused and intense, and that will really help get ready for club volleyball and college volleyball.”
Carrara has helped Cockrell improve her mental game, including thinking about where to hit the ball after a great set, called an “out shot.”
“I’ve put in a lot of different things that I thought would help these girls, but you don’t know if you’re throwing too much at them at once,” Carrara said. “But Ciera has picked up on everything so quickly. Her first 12 out shots, she scored on 12 kills in a row. She listens to what people tell her, whether it’s her coaches, teammates, setter or whoever. Ciera is the type of player that coaches dream about coaching.”
Providence Day went 18-16 last year, losing to eventual state champion Charlotte Country Day in the NCISAA quarterfinals.
Cockrell’s sophomore season, after her family moved back to Charlotte from the Detroit area, the Chargers failed to post a winning record or make the playoffs.
Providence Day is now stocked with talent and experience, starting with senior co-captains Cockrell, setter Mia Schwartz and middle Christina Fleischer.
Junior Lexi Mitchell on the outside, sophomore Amy Loeber on the right, junior Valerie Evivie and sophomore Sydney Perry in the middle and junior Carly Britt and sophomore Autumn Mitchell on defense also contribute.
Carrara has infused new energy into her coaching staff, with 10 other coaches from the seventh-grade team to varsity: Dena Graziano, Lindsey Sutton, John Sutton, Lauren Villarreal, Jocelyn Kellinger, Carolina Descalzi, Saundra Robbins, Imani Harper, Christy Olsen and Alex Pente.
The Chargers finished runners-up to Epiphany Christian at North Raleigh Christian’s Volley with the Knights tournament in early September.
Cockrell shined at the event, earning all-tournament honors with 61 kills, six aces and 41 digs.
Cockrell and Providence Day will get to prove themselves in the next three weeks, with conference matches against Charlotte Country Day, Charlotte Latin and Covenant Day.
“Our conference is definitely brutal and one of the best in the state, with Country Day, Latin, Covenant Day and more,” Carrara said. “We know we can only control our side of the net. We have to keep playing our game, which is a crazy, super-relentless style. Even if we lose a game or two, we want to find a way to get to states and be a factor.”
Like her team, Cockrell is also on the rise; she’s in just her third year of playing club volleyball.
“This is just her third year playing high-level volleyball, so I feel like she hasn’t even come close to her ceiling or potential,” Carrara said. “With the amazing family that she comes from, I won’t be surprised no matter what she accomplishes in the future.”