Aquinas Academy boys basketball braces for ‘life without Vinnie’

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Saturday, December 9, 2023 | 11:01 AM


The Aquinas Academy boys basketball team spent more time this offseason in the weight room than ever before.

They were getting ready for some heavy lifting.

Vinnie Cugini, who scored 3,189 career points to shatter a 30-year-old WPIAL mark, has graduated, leaving behind a nearly 44-point-per-game hole in the Crusaders’ offense.

“It will be life without Vinnie,” Aquinas coach George Yokitis said. “We joke that we have to make up 45 points a game. How many people have had to do that?

“The kids worked really hard, including some weightlifting and things we hadn’t done much in the past.”

The Crusaders return three starters and will try to prove they were more than a one-man show after winning a WPIAL playoff game last season for the first time in program history.

“The team is really motivated,” said junior guard/forward Jacob Guillen, second in the team last season at 9.2 points per game. “Everyone on the team wants to win just as much as we did last year. No one wants other people to think it was just a fluke, just because we had Vinnie.”

Cugini, a four-time WPIAL scoring champion, put the tiny Hampton school on the map during his prolific high school career. Now a freshman at Pitt-Johnstown, the 6-foot-2 guard led the Crusaders to three consecutive playoff appearances and the elusive WPIAL postseason win. He averaged 43.7 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 4.0 steals as a senior and was named PIAA Class A Player of the Year.

Joining Guillen as returning starters from a 20-6 team are 6-1 senior forward Josh Schlemmer (5.6 ppg) and 5-10 sophomore wing Sam Duer (4.4 ppg).

Replacing Cugini and fellow graduate Jude Truschel in the starting lineup are sophomore point guard Jonah Burchill and junior shooting guard David Zaharko.

Some of the key reserves include senior forward Grayson Mizuk and freshman guard/forward Clayton Frissora.

The Crusaders competed this offseason in multiple leagues — “We played everywhere we could,” Yokitis said — and logged upwards of 30 games as they worked on their chemistry.

“They take it as a challenge, in a nice way, to show that maybe they can do OK without Vinnie,” said Yokitis, in his sixth year. “They want to show that they are pretty good players, too.”

Yokitis said Guillen is the most likely candidate to take a big offensive leap as the Crusaders look to fill Cugini’s scoring void. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Guillen is a versatile player who transformed his body with an offseason in the weight room.

“I’ve definitely gotten stronger,” he said. “In the fall and summer, I was noticing being able to hold my ground against players playing aggressively and also finishing ‘and-ones’ a lot more frequently. I put on a decent amount of weight. I also lost a lot of bad weight and gained some muscle.”

Said Yokitis, “Jake is getting better all the time. He can handle the ball well. He’s strong. He’s worked out lifting weights and he’s gotten more defined. I think Jake will do very well.”

Guillen said he and his teammates are embracing the challenge of the post-Cugini era.

“We need to keep the scoring up and try to find a way to put up a lot of points, just like we did with Vinnie,” Guillen said. “I’m pretty excited to step up, and I think other players also will step up. I think this year we will have a pretty decent team.”

Stuck in the same section as the WPIAL’s top two Class A teams, Imani Christian and Neighborhood Academy, the Crusaders know they likely won’t be hanging any banners this season. But with seven freshmen on the roster, interest has never been higher in a program that went 14-103 from 2009-14, then left for the small-private school SWCAC, before returning to the WPIAL in ‘19.

“I think we’ve turned the corner,” Yokitis said. “The kids have learned to compete. … We’re very, very young. We only have two seniors and we have all of these young kids. So that’s a good thing for the future.”

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