Aquinas Academy boys show they’re no one-man team

Saturday, March 2, 2024 | 11:01 AM

Aquinas Academy entered this season with a lot of uncertainty after losing WPIAL all-time leading scorer Vinnie Cugini to graduation.

But instead of taking a step backward, the new-look Crusaders proved themselves by recording 15 wins and earning a WPIAL playoff victory for only the second time in program history.

“I give the kids so much credit,” coach George Yokitis said. “It might have been easy to say, ‘Oh my gosh. We don’t have Vinnie.’ I think they took it as an appropriate challenge of wanting to show they are pretty good players on their own. I think they did that. I know they did that.”

Aquinas senior forward Josh Schlemmer said he expected some regression without Cugini, the reigning PIAA Class A player of the year and a four-time WPIAL scoring champ who capped his career with 3,189 points before heading to Pitt-Johnstown.

The Crusaders were also young, with a combined 13 freshmen and sophomores on the 17-man roster.

“With Vinnie leaving, I was wondering what it would be like,” said Schlemmer, who joined reserve forward Grayson Mizuk as the only seniors on the roster. “But considering how far we got, I thought it was a success. I thought we would take a little bit more of a step back.

“That was definitely on the top of my mind going into the season. ‘OK, we had Vinnie this whole time, scoring 3,000 points.’ Now we’ve got to prove we can actually win without him, and I think we did a pretty darn good job of it.”

Aquinas finished third in Section 3, behind Class A powerhouses Imani Christian and Neighborhood Academy, before routing No. 10 seeded California, 84-50, on Feb. 16 in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs behind a career-high 37 points from junior Jacob Guillen.

An 80-56 quarterfinal loss to No. 2 Neighborhood dropped No. 7 Aquinas into the consolation bracket, where the Crusaders’ season — and a bid for a possible PIAA playoff berth — ended with a 67-54 loss to Carlynton on Feb. 23.

“We won one playoff game and we got to the same spot we were (last season),” said Schlemmer “The fact that we did that without Vinnie, I think that shows a lot of improvement among everyone else.”

Aquinas last season won a WPIAL playoff game for the first time. The Crusaders have continued to distance themselves from the downtrodden years of 2009-14, when they went a combined 14-103 as a fledgling WPIAL program.

Half of Aquinas’ 10 losses this season were to Neighborhood Academy (three) and Imani Christian (two), and its other five losses were to WPIAL playoff teams.

Even in those defeats, the Crusaders showed fight. They trailed top-ranked Imani 41-35 entering the fourth quarter in an eventual 63-46 loss, and they played well in tight losses to Section 1-A champion Rochester (87-77) and Section 2-A champ Monessen (84-80).

They also did good things off the court. In mid-January, the players made their annual trip to the Red Door, a Downtown Pittsburgh ministry that provides food and clothing for those in need, for a Saturday of volunteering.

“We had a really nice year,” Yokitis said. “We competed really well. Other than not going as far as we wanted in the playoffs, we are all very happy.”

Guillen filled some of the void left by Cugini. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound guard/forward averaged 21 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3 assists. Guillen is 162 points shy of reaching 1,000 for his career.

Other returning starters are sophomore wing Sam Duer (3 spg), sophomore point guard Jonah Burchill (3 apg) and junior shooting guard David Zaharko (3.0 apg), along with a top reserve, freshman guard/forward Clayton Frissora.

“It was a time to show (last season) wasn’t just a shot in the pan for Aquinas,” Yokitis said. “Years ago, Aquinas wouldn’t have dreamed of doing something like that. The kids wanted to show we are pretty decent players and we can compete with everyone.”


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