Three years ago Dionne Vanlandingham did not know much about basketball. She spent most of her time practicing modern dance routines as part of the Long Beach Poly High School drill team. At the end of the week she and her fellow Polyettes performed in halftime shows at football games.
Vanlandingham did not play basketball until her senior year at Poly High, but she learned the game quickly. In only her third season of competitive basketball, the university sophomore center is a dominating force at the post. She leads Cal State Dominguez Hills in scoring (13.2 points a game) and rebounding (12.7 a game).
As a freshman last year she made the all-California Collegiate Athletic Assn. second team. She also led Dominguez Hills in scoring and was named the team's most valuable player.
Van Girard, the Lady Toros' third-year coach, said Vanlandingham is probably the best natural athlete on his roster.
"She's going to keep getting better," Girard said. "Her skills are already more developed and polished than they were as a freshman. I knew when I recruited her that her improvement would be down the line, not right away."
The coach said Vanlandingham makes up for lack of size with quickness. Most of the centers in the league are taller and huskier than Vanlandingham, who is a slender 6 feet and 155 pounds. Her agility, however, is better than that of the big, strong players she goes up against.
"She's a lot quicker than most people at the post," Girard said. "She's just a great athlete with great ability. She's a player that other teams in the conference will have to contend with."
Vanlandingham is still adjusting to all the attention. She says basketball is a lot of fun, so it is difficult to take seriously. Earlier this week she strutted into the Dominguez Hills gym giggling, though she was late for a pre-practice interview. She wore a stylish black leather jacket and large hoop earrings.
Her easygoing demeanor and soft-spoken style make it difficult to imagine how tough she is in her cardinal-and-gold basketball uniform.
"I'm a lot more aggressive than I was last year," she said. "I learned right away that if you're not aggressive in this game, you won't get anywhere. Last year I got knocked around a lot, but not anymore."
Vanlandingham still shows signs that she is a young and inexperienced player, but her overall performance has led Dominguez Hills to its best start (10-2) since 1984. That year the Lady Toros initiated the season with an 11-1 mark under former Coach Alice Textor.
Many say Vanlandingham, 19, will be one of the league's top players by the end of her career. Her raw talent made a strong impression on Darlene May, who coaches Dominguez Hills' CCAA rival at Cal Poly Pomona.
"She's got great skills and she's going to be a good player once she gets more experience," said May, who has led the Broncos to three national championships and nine CCAA titles. "We would like to have her here. She runs very well and she can jump. She's a real nice player."
May is keeping a close eye on Vanlandingham because Dominguez Hills is predicted to be Pomona's toughest CCAA opponent this season. The Lady Toros should be one of the forces in the six-member league since Cal State Northridge left to play Division I.
Dominguez Hills' strength is undoubtedly up front. Cheri Bullet, a 6-foot transfer from El Camino College, is Vanlandingham's front-court partner, and together they give the Lady Toros a solid inside attack.
"They really make a big difference on this team," Girard said. "Two solid post players like Dionne and Cheri give us a true inside game, which we haven't really had before."
Vanlandingham brought the same success to Long Beach Poly during an impressive senior season. She prepared for her high school debut by attending a girls' summer basketball camp at Cal State Long Beach after her junior year.
When the camp ended, she spent lots of time shooting hoops at a nearby park with Long Beach Poly teammate, Letoyia Gray, a sophomore guard at Dominguez Hills this season.
By the time school started, Vanlandingham was more than prepared. She helped the Jackrabbits go undefeated in the Moore League and reach the second round of the CIF playoffs. That year she led Long Beach Poly in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. She was named Moore League MVP, was selected to The Times' all-star team and the all-CIF second team.
"I surprised myself," she said laughing. "I guess I was just born with athletic ability."
John Anderson, who runs the Olympic Girls Development League, says Vanlandingham has surprised many. After watching her play in the league for three years, he says her progress has been impressive.
"She was tentative at first, but once she got started she did real well," he said. "When I first saw her play I knew she had the ability to be a good player. She runs the court real well and she has great offensive skills."
Anderson has seen numerous all-stars go through his program and he says Vanlandingham hits the boards better than most.
"Rebounding is definitely her forte," he said. "She's an outstanding rebounder and she's quick."
But Vanlandingham did not exactly have college scouts lined up at her doorstep. She was recruited by San Jose State and Oregon State and chose Dominguez Hills because it was 10 minutes away from the Carson home she shares with her mother, stepfather and two younger siblings.
Her only regret is that she did not start playing basketball sooner. The pre-law major says, however, that she got just as good a workout practicing dance routines with the drill team.