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St. Dominic: A towering force to be reckoned with

The St. Dominic Academy basketball team has one of the premier front lines in Hudson County hoops. From left are Samantha Fortune, Maddie Branigan, Alex Taveras and head coach John Hester
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The St. Dominic Academy basketball team has one of the premier front lines in Hudson County hoops. From left are Samantha Fortune, Maddie Branigan, Alex Taveras and head coach John Hester

The St. Dominic Academy girls’ basketball team won an impressive 18 games last season, falling to eventual Hudson County Tournament champion Bayonne in the tourney’s quarterfinals and losing to perennial state power Oak Knoll in the NJSIAA Parochial B North semifinals.

But the Blue Devils have returned almost in entirety this season, posting a 3-1 record in the early going.

Having a veteran roster has been extremely beneficial to veteran head coach John Hester.

“It has been helpful, because they are all familiar with the drills,” Hester said. “We have some senior talent and we have a solid front line.”

Leading the returnees is 6-foot sophomore forward Maddie Branigan. The dominant Branigan earned Third Team All-Hudson County honors last season as a freshman. So far this season, Branigan has been downright unstoppable, averaging 22 points and nine rebounds per contest.

“She’s a very dynamic player,” Hester said. “We’re asking her to do a lot of things this season. With the backcourt learning on the job, we need big performances from her. She’s very tough inside. She can really do a little bit of everything and I’m asking her to do that. She’s an unselfish player. She sees the floor well. She plays good defense and rebounds well.”

Another solid player for the Blue Devils is 5-foot-11 sophomore forward Samantha Fortune.

“She’s been playing almost like a point guard,” Hester said of Fortune, who is averaging 4.5 points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals per game so far. “She’s long and lanky. She can shoot the ball from anywhere. She has to take the leadership role, even though she’s a sophomore. I really have to implore her to shoot the ball. But she’s a very good player.”

Senior Alex Taveras is a 5-foot-10 forward, completing the Blue Devils’ trio of tall talented players. Taveras is averaging eight points, six rebounds and four assists per contest in the early going.

There isn’t a team in Hudson County that can produce a front line like SDA.

“They all can get up and down the floor,” Hester said. “Alex is an excellent passer and contributes well off the glass. She does a little bit of everything.”

Hester does not have to worry at all about his front court play. But the concern lies within a largely inexperienced backcourt.

“We could have really benefitted from a real summer and preseason,” Hester said. “We didn’t have the summer leagues that we normally have. We could have benefitted from the reps we would have had. That is the main concern. They’re working hard. It’s not that they’re short in ability. It’s just that we’re short of experience. Most of our guards only played JV [junior varsity]. We have a couple of freshmen who could make a solid contribution. It’s a backcourt by committee. We’re going to use different combinations depending on how they play.”

Junior Angie Taite is a 5-foot-3 guard.

“She gives 100 percent effort every day,” Hester said. “She’s very active. She’s one of our energy players. She goes at a different pace than everyone else. She ends up always doing something good. She’s one of those kids who is always on the move and always giving effort.”

Sophomore Olivia Gencarelli is a 5-foot-2 guard.

“She can shoot the ball well,” Hester said. “We just need her to play with a little more confidence. She needs a little Hudson County toughness. She’s a little tentative. She second guesses herself too much. But if we get her comfortable if she makes a mistake, she’s going to be fine. We can’t survive without a backcourt.”

One of the promising newcomers is a name well known to Hester. It’s his freshman daughter Kelly, who falls No. 6 among his eight children. Kelly Hester is a 5-foot-4 guard who has done well so far, averaging six points and three assists per game.

“She had a really strong camp,” Hester said of his daughter. “She shoots the ball well. Her challenge will be keeping up with the pace of a high school varsity game. She handles the ball well and has a good basketball IQ. She’s been around the game. She comes in polished.”

Hester was asked how it felt to coach his daughter.

“It’s exciting,” Hester said. “I loved coaching Shannon [Hester’s elder daughter who graduated six years ago]. Kelly has worked as hard as anyone else. She’s inspired and she’s improved.”

Emma Smith is another freshman. The 5-foot-4 Smith, who is coming off an excellent soccer campaign, is a relative newcomer to the sport of basketball.

“She’s the best athlete on the team,” Hester said. “She played for [Lincoln boys’ head coach] Bill Zasowski in the Bayonne school league. She’s been a pleasant surprise. I think we can make something out of her.”

Julia Mickiewicz is a 5-foot-10 sophomore who adds depth to the front court.

“She’s big, strong girl who is not afraid to be physical,” Hester said. “She’s an excellent rebounder and has a nice short-range jumper.”

Others that add depth are 5-foot-2 senior guard Amanda Diaz, one of the team’s captains, and 5-foot-4 sophomore forward Tess Cangialose.

The Blue Devils have one obstacle to overcome. They play their entire schedule on the road. COVID-19 regulations have forced the Blue Devils to play all of their games in the opposing team’s gym.

However, in the early stages of the season, so far so good. They have defeated McNair Academic, Ferris and Memorial and lost to Lincoln. They will do just fine the rest of the way.

Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com, follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar and listen to the Hudson County Sports Podcast, brought to you weekly by Stan’s Sports Center, 528 Washington Street in Hoboken, on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Listen to this week’s guest, namely Jersey City football great Keith Price, who had a good career at Rutgers before eventually becoming the athletic director at Lincoln