KALAMAZOO, MI – It could’ve been late June or early July – Kalamazoo Central girls basketball coach Jason Plunkett can’t quite recall – but it was in the middle of the afternoon heat on a particularly scorching day, that much he is sure of.
Some movement inside an otherwise empty football stadium caught his eye, and the sight of someone running the steps in such inhospitable conditions prompted a double-take.
That someone was K-Central junior Tayla Dillard, whose offseason work ethic has made her one of the most improved basketball players in Southwest Michigan, if not the entire state.
As a sophomore, the 5-foot-9 combo guard led K-Central with 11.2 points per game last year, but that number has ballooned to just under 18 per game this year, to go along with 9.5 rebounds for the 16-1 Maroon Giants.
“I pulled in here on a Sunday afternoon, and I saw a girl outside running stadium steps all by herself, and it’s right in the heat of the day in the middle of June or early July, and she was out there sweating profusely, running up and down the stadium steps all by herself,” Plunkett said. “Stuff like that explains why she’s a lot quicker this year than she was last year, and she’s a lot stronger, and it’s really paying off.”
Dillard was especially effect during K-Central’s 61-52 win over Plainwell and 46-31 victory over Richland Gull Lake, averaging 21 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.5 blocks per game during that stretch, which prompted local prep basketball fans to pick her as the latest MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette Athlete of the Week.
Dillard’s 10,268 votes were good for 57.8 percent of the total and allowed her to pull away from runner-up and fellow Maroon Giant Hutch Ward, a senior on K-Central’s boys basketball team, who finished with 22.5 percent of the ballot after 25.7 points and 10 rebounds per game in three wins.
Dillard comes from a family of very good basketball players, with her older brother, Thomas Dillard IV, earning all-state honors in his junior and senior years before going on to play at the University of Michigan Dearborn, while her father, Thomas Dillard III, was a star player at K-Central that continued his career at the University of Detroit Mercy.
She showed flashes of greatness during K-Central’s 13-7 season last year, but is playing with a lot more consistency on both ends of the court.
“I mean, we can pretty much pencil her in for anywhere between 18 to 24 points every single game, and I think the other thing is just her rebounding and defense have improved dramatically since last year,” Plunkett said. “There are times we have her run point guard, and she can get us into the offense, but there are also times where we might have her guard the other team’s big girl, or take a big girl into the post. So, she’s very, very versatile when it comes to her offense and defense.”
Those improvements didn’t happen overnight.
In addition to running the steps at Eugene S. Thomas Stadium, Dillard spent a lot of her summer in the gym hoisting shot after shot and running ladder sprints to prepare for her junior campaign.
“Once open gyms started in the fall, you could just see the improvement, just in terms of being quicker and being in better overall shape,” Plunkett said.
When a team’s most talented players are also its hardest workers, success usually follows, and that has been the case for K-Central, which is riding a 16-game winning streak following an overtime loss to Muskegon in the season opener.
Dillard’s teammates know her dedication to the game and her desire to help them all succeed, so when she talks at practice or during games, people are listening.
“She’s very vocal and does a good job of rallying the kids when things aren’t going our way,” Plunkett said. “She does a really good job with our two sophomores (Winter Owens and Kynnedi Patterson), who are playing a vital role for us, too. That’s somebody they can look up to because she’s in the gym all the time really working hard on her game.”
Junior Jada Collins, Dillard’s teammate who holds multiple Division-I scholarship offers, has also been a big-time beneficiary of her improved play because now defenses can’t dedicate all their resources to stopping the 6-foot-1 wing.
“She has really improved on is finding the open person now that defenses are gearing to stop her,” Plunkett said of Dillard. “She’s super aggressive taking the ball to the hole, but now she’s really keeping her head up and finding her open teammates, and they’re thriving as a result of that.
“I think they all have benefitted, but Jada, in particular, is getting a lot more open looks than she was at the beginning of the year because Tayla’s drawing the defense and kicking it out to her. Jada’s starting to get into a nice little rhythm right now, and hopefully that keeps up.”
Dillard has yet to receive her a Division-I scholarship offer, but U-M Dearborn has offered a roster spot, which would put her on campus with her older brother.
But there’s a good chance Dillard’s opportunities expand before her senior season.
“She’s definitely going to play at the next level, and I mean, I think her potential is pretty much unlimited, and it all goes back to her work ethic and the amount of time that she spends in the gym, both in season and out of season,” Plunkett said. “As long as she keeps that up, she can be as good as she wants to be.”
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