RALEIGH — As the two-time defending state champions, Millbrook’s girls basketball program is no stranger to the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A East regional round, which the Wildcats enter this week.
Millbrook has won the East regional the past three years, but for several of the players on this year’s team, Fayetteville’s Crown Coliseum – home of the regionals – in uncharted territory.
“At the beginning of the season we only had five players who had played varsity basketball before, and with 14 people on the team, that’s not a lot,” said senior guard Jaylaan Dillard, who serves as a steadying force on the young team. “From the beginning of the season, my coaches have asked me to kind of be the leader because I’m one of the few who has been with the program through the (state finals) loss the first year and the two (state championship) wins, so I know what it’s like to get there and lose and get there and win.”
Millbrook won its second straight state title last year with the leadership of a senior class of eight players who all signed to play college basketball. Dillard said the goal coming into this season was to prove wrong the naysayers who thought the team would struggle with a mostly new roster.
Millbrook (24-3) opened the season with a loss to East Wake, snapping a 45-game winning streak.
“We grew up a whole lot from the beginning of the season until now,” said forward Jaleesa Dillard finds herself in the middle of the two ends of the spectrum. Though only a sophomore, the returning player sees herself as a more experienced player among the team of mostly underclassmen.
“I was there last year, but then I understand where (the freshmen) are coming from, because I was in their place last year on varsity,” she said.
The Wildcats roster includes five freshmen: guards Kai Crutchfield, Dazia Powell and Zairya West, and forwards Sis Norman and Kiara Rochelle.
Crutchfield and Powell lead the Wildcats in scoring with 11.1 and 10.4 points per game, respectively.
“They were more mature as freshmen than I thought they would be,” coach Chris East said. “I think that has a lot to do with their experience with their AAU team, and on top of that, we’ve had really good senior leadership from Jaylaan Dillard, Destinie Dunn and Ajae Grisby.”
Crutchfield, Powell and Norman were all members Team Carolina club team that won the eighth grade AAU Gold Super Showcase and AAU Division I National Championship last year.
“We work together well, so it brings that out on the court here at Millbrook,” Norman said. “Hopefully if we keep working hard together, we can keep this going.”
Top-seeded Millbrook will face No. 5 Durham Hillside (23-5) in the state quarterfinals.