For three years, Dominique Vitalis made the paint her domain.
If a brassy guard wanted to venture inside and challenge her, she had an open invitation from Gill St. Bernard’s 6-1 center, who delivered more rejections than the U.S. Patent Office. She moved liberally on the blocks and was the established centerpiece of the halfcourt offense, the primary option eager to finish in the post with a graceful ease and reliable consistency.
But beyond all her technical polish, which earned Vitalis a scholarship to Georgetown, her greatest asset was always putting the team above her own accomplishments. So, when 6-1 sophomore Taylor Rooks transferred from the Nichols School in Buffalo to Gill St. Bernard’s this past off season, Vitalis was the first to welcome the newcomer into the fold.
“I was very open to having a new player,” Vitalis said. “I wanted to see what she was all about and she showed she could play right from the start. Taylor has been a great addition and I welcomed her with open arms. I was very excited and appreciative of having her help in the post.”
What has unfolded over the course of Vitalis’ senior season is a frontcourt tandem that’s developed chemistry while emerging into a dynamic force to be reckoned with, something third-seeded Manasquan has prepared for in anticipation of its showdown with fourth-seeded Gill St. Bernard’s on Tuesday night in the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions final at 6:30 in the Izod Center in East Rutherford.
The two have bonded over the course of the season and saved their best performance for the post season. Vitalis has averaged 16.1 points and 11.7 rebounds in the state tournament while Rooks has backed that with 17.4 points and 11.7 rebounds as well.
Their ultra-competitiveness was revealed on Thursday when they combined for 32 points and 22 rebounds as integral parts that enabled Gill St. Bernard’s (29-4), No. 6 in the MSG Varsity New Jersey Top 15, to overcome a 23-point deficit midway through the third quarter to shock top-seeded and top-ranked Shabazz for a 60-56 victory in the T of C semifinals.
“They just never stop working,” Gill St. Bernard’s coach Aaron Gratch said. “They are both so aggressive getting offensive rebounds. They find angles and go after it. Few teams have players to box both of them out.”
Besides taking advantage of their physiques underneath, Vitalis and Rooks have speed that plays well off each other. Vitalis is fast and nimble on her feet in the pivot with an array of quick moves to the basket while Rooks is by know means anchored to the blocks. She will flash out high to get the ball and blow past a defender off the dribble with her deceptive quickness or step back to stick a mid-range jumper.
And, both do a great job of releasing on the break to fill lanes and make themselves available to finish in transition. Vitalis is particularly fond of runouts because they provide her the chance to reflect on an aspiration from her youth.
“When I was younger, I was tall and had long legs so I wanted to be a track star,” Vitalis revealed. “The coaches emphasized that I need to run in our fast breaks. We got Mooch (sophomore guard Jasmine Sina) and the twins (senior guards Sam and Linnett Graber) who can all make the long outlet pass up the court. That motivates me to get up the court, so why not use that to our advantage?”
Manasquan (31-2) figures to put 6-1 junior Amanda Hagaman opposite Vitalis and either 6-0 sophomore Sam Sullivan or 5-10 All-American guard Michaela Mabrey against Rooks. While the matchups could vary, the anticipated physicality of the battles inside is something Vitalis is looking forward and somewhat familiar with.
When the two teams met in a pre-season scrimmage at Holmdel, the contest was fast-paced with plenty of muscle being flexed inside.
“She is a lot stronger than she looks,” Gratch said of Vitalis. “In some games this year, she has been an absolute beast. Dom never shies away from being physical. And, she’s been smart about it, too, only getting in foul trouble once or twice all year. Last year, it wasn’t uncommon for her to be sitting in the first or second quarter with fouls. This year, that’s hardly happened and we’re playing man to man. It says a lot about her.”
Riding a 15-game winning streak and the momentum of Gill St. Bernard’s stirring rally against Shabazz, Vitalis can’t ignore the obvious.
“We have something special going on right now,” Vitalis said. “We’ve played as a team and our chemistry has been great. Taylor and I have clicked all season and we’re hoping to do so one more time. Manasquan is a great team. It should be fun.”
Gregg Lerner covers girls basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner