Led by high-scoring Vinnie Cugini, Aquinas Academy having historic season

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Saturday, February 12, 2022 | 11:01 AM


Aquinas Academy’s boys basketball team has emerged on the WPIAL radar this season.

Led by the prolific scoring of 6-foot-2 junior guard Vinnie Cugini, the Crusaders are one of the top teams in Class A.

After jumping out to a 6-0 start that included winning their own tip-off tournament championship, the Crusaders were 10-4 overall at the end of January.

“The kids work hard and have shown marked improvement,” fourth-year coach George Yokitis said. “Qualification for a playoff spot is now a reasonable expectation.”

Cugini, who led the WPIAL in scoring in his first two seasons and reached the 2,000-point mark in his 55th varsity game Feb. 9 against Leechburg, is scoring at a 35 points-per-game clip this season.

“We are doing great so far with a couple of big wins against really good teams,” Cugini said. “My season is going well. My defense and rebounding have gotten stronger, so I feel that my overall game has improved.”

Cugini tossed in 39.2 points per game last year after averaging 34.2 as a freshman.

He scored his 1,000th career point Jan. 29, 2021, also against Leechburg, in his 29th game at the small Catholic school in Hampton. Cugini surpassed former Valley great Tom Pipkins, who needed 42 games to reach 1,000 points as a sophomore in 1990-91.

Cugini is on pace to break Pipkins’ WPIAL career scoring record of 2,838 points set from 1990-93.

The Crusaders’ offensive whiz had one of the biggest scoring nights in WPIAL history last season on Jan. 22 when he peppered in 55 points in an 87-78 overtime win against Nazareth Prep.

The clutch performance shattered his school record of 48 points set in his freshman season.

Four days later, Cugini accounted for 52 points in an 86-74 victory at Avella.

“Vinny‘s attributes are many,” Yokitis said. “Some include his anticipatory skills, his exceptional quickness and an array of moves to the hoop. One of Vinny’s strongest attributes is his quickness to the rim, and he actually plays faster with the ball than without.”

In the classroom, Cugini’s grade-point average hovers in the 3.75 range. He is looking to continue his academic and athletic careers at the next level.

“Vinnie is a tremendous young man,” Yokitis said. “He has a full scholarship offer from Pitt-Johnstown. As you know, this is a tremendous D2 program. There are also a number of other interested schools.”

The Crusaders’ starting lineup consists of Cugini, juniors Theo Austin and Michael Duer, a transfer from now-closed Quigley Catholic, Jude Truschel and Fox Chapel resident John Bence.

“Michael Duer is a key defender who frequently draws the opponent’s most prolific scorer,” Yokitis said.

Cugini has been complemented offensively this season by Bence (15 ppg) and Austin (10 ppg). Austin, Cugini and Truschel pace the Crusaders on the boards while Bence is the team leader in assists.

Leading reserves include Josh Schlemmer, Jake Guillen, Antonio Perry, Nick Tarquinio and Ben Tarquinio.

“We get a lot of good minutes from my teammates who come off the bench,” Cugini said.

Aquinas utilizes what has been described as a free-wheeling, high-octane playing style, which only enhances Cugini’s prolific scoring abilities. The Crusaders averaged 71.7 points per game through 14 contests.

“The team is competitive, plays hard and with appropriate confidence,” Yokitis said. “They play together well and are comfortable with their respective roles.

“We are blessed with outstanding senior leadership from Austin, Duer, Perry and Nick Tarquinio. Their selflessness is inspirational.”

Aquinas finished 7-9 and 6-16 the past two years in its return to the WPIAL after a six-year stay from 2009-15. The boys basketball program began in 2005-06; this will be the first winning season in program history.

The Crusaders advanced to the WPIAL playoffs last year for the first time, but the feat was tempered by the fact it was the league’s first open tournament since 1984. All teams qualified.

“Our goal is to make the playoffs,” Cugini said. “We want to continue to work hard and get better each week.”

Yokitis previously coached at Montour and Vincentian Academy. He guided Vincentian to WPIAL titles in 2011 and ‘13 and was named the state’s Class A Coach of the Year in 2011.

He is proud to be an Aquinas coach.

Aquinas Academy is an incredible educational institution,” Yokitis said. “The average scores on such measurables as the SAT are a matter of record; for instance, for the year 2019, the students averaged in excess of 1,300 on the SAT.

“Most of our players participate in more than one sport and many school-sponsored extracurricular activities.”

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