The leadership of five seniors been instrumental in the No. 9 Lady Vols basketball team’s 14-5 start, but so has the play of three UT freshmen — which made up the nation’s top recruiting class in 2011— one of whom being 6-foot-2 backup forward Cierra Burdick.

Burdick arrived this past year at Tennessee with an impressive resume after attending Butler High School in North Carolina, where she graduated with a 4.28 GPA.

The nation’s No. 3 recruit for the Class of 2011 put together an impressive senior season in which she averaged 23.1 points, 15.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 5 blocks and 4.1 steals a game. Her performance not only led her to a roster spot in the McDonald’s All-American game, but awarded her the North Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year. In three years at Butler, she led her team to an 86-7 record and a state title.

“It was great just to have my hard work pay off,” Burdick said. “I love that high school, and I wouldn’t have wanted to graduate from anywhere else than Butler.”

Since becoming a Lady Vol, Burdick has been a major impact for her team and adjusted to the college level of play rather quickly. Through 19 games, she has averaged 4.7 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game.

In her first regular season game, Burdick came off the bench to score seven points to go along with two assists and two blocks in the Lady Vols’ 89-57 victory over Pepperdine.

“It was definitely a confidence booster to go out and play in my first game,” Burdick said. “It’s hard coming in as a high schooler and playing on a big stage, especially at a major college. It allowed me to realize that I can impact this team and help us out.”

Her most defining performance this season, however, came last week in a hard-fought 65-56 victory over SEC opponent LSU. In a game in which Tennessee was missing two starters, Burdick stepped up big in her teammates’ absences. In logging a season-high 31 minutes off the bench, Burdick tied her career high in points with 15 and hauled in six rebounds to go with a block and a steal. She was named player of the game.

“I think she’s used to playing,” said UT assistant Coach Holly Warlick. “When Shekinna’s (Stricklen) well and Meighan’s (Simmons) playing well, it’s tough to get her minutes at times. I thought she’s been patient. She’s worked hard on her game and she got the opportunity tonight and made the most of it. Her time is coming.”

Not only do her coaches and teammates like the hard work she puts into her game, but her work ethic as well.

“She is a very hard worker and is at the gym all the time,” senior Glory Johnson said. “She will be in the gym working on her shot for hours. Every day you can see an improvement in her game.”

While Burdick dreams of one day having her name up in the rafters inside Thompson-Boling Arena, winning multiple championships while playing for the Lady Vols, and making it to the WNBA, she also has other plans for later on in her future.

“I’m majoring in journalism and electronic media and trying to get into the broadcasting field and do some sports broadcasting,” Burdick said. “I’m just a people person and I love talking to people and finding out things about them and enjoying their company. So just to be able to talk about the sport and their life in general is really appealing to me.”

For the girl who first started playing basketball at the age of five and played numerous other sports growing up, including softball and soccer, she is living out her dream right now and couldn’t be happier to be a Lady Vol playing for coach Pat Summitt.

“The experience so far has been great,” Burdick said. “I’m learning a lot of stuff every day and continuing to get better is my goal and I feel like this coaching staff can help me do that. We just have to keep getting better as a team and I think we can do some special things.”