Rogers plays for love of father

In a perfect world, this story would be only about basketball. It would profile the best girls' hoop player in the Bay Area, potentially San Francisco's first female McDonald's All-American.

In the real world, it's about so much more. It's about how a girl's gift became a curse and how what she loved to do more than anything became a painful reminder of the worst time in her life.

If life was fair, Tierra Rogers would be in the situation millions of kids dream about. She's the unquestioned leader of Sacred Heart Cathedral, a team that won a state and mythical national championship last year, going 33-0. A 5-foot-11 small forward, she is rated the nation's No. 20
senior recruit in the ESPNU HoopGurlz 100 -- No. 2 in the state -- and has accepted a scholarship to Cal.

But Tierra's incredible success on the court has been marred by unimaginable tragedy off it.

At halftime of a January game against Archbishop Mitty last season, Tierra's father, Terrell, a local anti-violence activist, stepped outside to have a cigarette. While waiting for his daughter's game to resume, the man everyone called Terray was shot and killed. Police believe he was targeted since the man he was standing with was unharmed. As of press time, no arrests had been made in the case.

Since the murder took place right outside the doors Tierra walks through each day at school, and feet away from where she became a star, the basketball court is anything but a sanctuary.

After missing several games to mourn her father, Tierra returned to the team last season. But it wasn't easy. In her first game back, she broke down in tears at halftime and couldn't
finish the game.

Playing ball without Terray watching -- in the front row with his loud voice booming encouragement throughout the gym -- is a reminder of the pain Tierra feels.

As a result, she does her best to avoid looking in the stands when playing, focusing entirely on the court. Nearly a year has passed since Terray's murder, but the pain is still as fresh as it was that January night.

"I have good days and bad days," Tierra says. "Some days are not so good and others I feel a little better. It's been like a roller coaster."

Somehow, she fights through it. Tierra returned in time to help the Irish win their third consecutive state title and earn the No. 1 spot in several national rankings.

Even without her biggest cheerleader watching, Tierra became a ESPN HoopGurlz All-American and
continued to thrive when the stakes were highest.

Trailing by a point in the waning moments of the NorCal Division III championship game against fellow unbeaten St. Mary's of Stockton, Tierra drove the lane and scored with 10.5
seconds left to lift the Irish to a 46-45 victory and a berth in the state title game.

That performance cemented Tierra's
reputation as a clutch player. It called to mind a game during her sophomore year when she almost single-handedly erased a four-point deficit with 18 seconds left in the NorCal finals against Sacramento with a basket, a steal and an assist. Sacred Heart eventually prevailed in
overtime, 68-67. Then in the state finals against Bishop Amat that year, she converted a 3--point play in the final seconds to force overtime, where the Irish triumphed, 60-54.

"That's the time for someone like Tierra to shine," Sacred Heart Cathedral coach Brian Harrigan says. "Instead of being hesitant, they embrace it."

But it's still hard for Tierra to wrap her arms around the game. During the march to last year's state title, she constantly second-guessed her decision to come back. Even today, there are times when she doesn't enjoy playing.

"Some days I don't feel like being on the court," says Tierra, who averaged 9.4 points per game on a well-balanced squad last year. "But
I think about my future, my dad and my
teammates and force myself to play."

Tierra's father always saw basketball as his daughter's ticket to a better life.
"Basketball was a big part of his life with her," Harrigan says. "He knew it was something she could use to get to a college program and get
an education."

She knows he would want her to keep
reaching toward their dream, but that doesn't make it any easier. Still, she plugs along, trying to get through the bad days while enjoying the good ones as much as possible.

"It's not just to do it for him, but to do it for both of them," Harrigan says.

Terray first put a ball in Tierra's hands when she was 3. As she got older and showed a love and
talent for the game, he made sure she could
succeed. Driving her to countless games and
practices, they forged a bond that will never
be broken.

In his absence, Tierra has grown closer to her mother, Dalonna, and 12-year-old brother, Terrell Jr. She has also leaned on the entire community at Sacred Heart Cathedral, especially the basketball team. Tierra was tight with her teammates before, but this tragedy has taken it to another level.
The entire squad went to Terray's memorial service, a gesture that touched Tierra.

"That meant a lot to me because I had no one but my family at that time," Tierra says. "And Brian has been there since Day 1. He was always there for me."

The Irish will continue to be there for Tierra. They know there will be ups and downs as she struggles through a bittersweet senior year.

The first time she does anything without her dad is particularly rough. Her first game back, her first college visit, her first practice this year.

Tierra knows the world isn't perfect, that life isn't fair, but she seems determined to fight through it. Her father wouldn't want it any other way.

Ryan Canner-O'Mealy covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.