Lightning-quick Aquinas Academy guard Vinnie Cugini threatening WPIAL all-time scoring record

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Saturday, December 17, 2022 | 11:01 AM


Any mention of the Aquinas Academy boys basketball team starts with 6-foot-2 guard Vinnie Cugini.

The senior backcourt star led the WPIAL in scoring in each of the past three seasons, averaging 34.2, 39.2 and 35 points per game.

Cugini reached the 2,000-point mark in his 55th varsity game Feb. 9 against Leechburg last season and is on pace to shatter the WPIAL career scoring record held by former Valley great Tom Pipkins, who netted 2,838 points from 1990-93.

“Vinny‘s attributes are many,” said George Yokitis, the Crusaders’ fifth-year coach. “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.”

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

Cugini was named Class A first-team all-state last year as led the Crusaders to their first winning season. He is a three-time all-state selection and competes in the offseason for Mason Elite.

After jumping out to a 6-0 start last year that included winning its own tip-off tournament championship, Aquinas Academy was 10-4 overall at the end of January.

The Crusaders ended up with 7-9, 6-16 and 11-9 records the past three years in their return to the WPIAL after a six-year stay from 2009-15.

“Our expectations (this season) are to work hard and win as many games as we can in a very competitive and strong section,” Cugini said. “Our goal is to make the playoffs, and once we’re in the playoffs, we want to make a strong run. We have a lot of young talent. Everyone hustles on the court and we work very hard.

“My personal goals are to continue to get better each day, to continue to put in hard work and to be a better leader and teammate.”

As a sophomore, the Crusaders’ offensive whiz enjoyed one of the biggest scoring nights in WPIAL history when he poured in 55 points in an 87-78 overtime win against Nazareth Prep.

Cugini broke his own school record of 48 points set in his freshman season. Four days later, he scored 52 in an 86-74 victory at Avella.

Cugini is a Pitt-Johnstown recruit. He has a lofty 4.25 GPA and is looking into majoring in the business field.

“UPJ seems like a really good fit for me,” Cugini said. “I really like the coaching staff and team. The coaches came to a lot of my Aquinas games last year and also traveled to most of my AAU tournaments. They showed strong interest in me early on and really pursued me.

“After my official overnight visit, I knew UPJ was the place for me. I am excited to play for coach (Bob) Rukavina and coach (Patrick) Grubbs and be part of the UPJ family.”

Pitt-Johnstown posted a 21-9 record last season, including a 16-6 mark in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.

“Vinnie is a tremendous young man and is doing great,” Yokitis said. “He has a full scholarship from Pitt-Johnstown. As you know, this is a wonderful school and a tremendous D2 program with a long-term great coach. UPJ always has an emphasis on academics, and it is my understanding that the basketball players regularly average in excess of a 3.5 grade-point average.”

Yokitis welcomed two returning starters — Cugini and senior Jude Truschel — from last year’s team at Aquinas.

Cugini was complemented offensively in 2021-22 by John Bence, who averaged 15 points per game. Bence is attending a school in Minnesota to develop his soccer career.

This year’s starting lineup consists of Cugini, sophomore guard Jake Guillen, Truschel at forward, junior guard/forward Josh Schlemmer and senior forward Ben Tarquinio.

Key reserves include freshmen guards Sam Duer and Jonah Birchill and junior guard Grayson Mizuk.

“Our expectations for the early part of the season are that the kids will play very hard and together,” said Yokitis, who is assisted by John Bray. “They had a very nice offseason and many of them developed their skills.

“Qualification for a playoff spot is now a reasonable expectation.”

The Cruaders ran past Cheswick Christian and Hillcrest Christian Academy in their own tip-off tournament in early December. Cugini connected for 77 points in the two contests and was named tournament MVP. Guillen also was voted onto the all-tourney team.

The Crusaders followed up with nonsection wins against Propel Andrew Street, 64-45, Nazareth Prep, 68-41, and Leechburg, 95-92, to improve to 5-0.

“The team is doing well,” Cugini said. “You can start to see the results of all the hard work my teammates and coaches put in during the offseason.”

Cugini led Aquinas with 48 points Dec. 13 against Leechburg in his team’s first road test of the season, climbing from 20th to 14th on the WPIAL’s all-time scoring list.

The Aquinas senior started the night with 2,237 career points. During the game, he passed Lance Jeter (Beaver Falls), James Hairston (Connellsville), Allan MacQuarrie (Pine-Richland), Dante Calabria (Blackhawk), Micah Mason (Highlands) and Brandon Fuss-Cheatham (Blackhawk) among the WPIAL’s all-time leading scorers.

Aquinas utilizes what has been described as a free-wheeling, high-octane playing style, The Crusaders average 73.6 points per game while allowing 53.4. Cugini is tossing in a career-best 41.4 ppg.

The Crusaders advanced to the WPIAL playoffs for the first time in 2020-21 and earned a second postseason appearance in 2021-22.

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