Sparked by arrival of basketball star Vinnie Cugini, Aquinas Academy volleyball thriving

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Saturday, April 15, 2023 | 11:01 AM


When Aquinas Academy senior Vinnie Cugini joined the school’s boys volleyball team for the first time this spring, he had mild expectations.

“I really thought it would be something cool and relaxing to do,” said Cugini, the WPIAL’s all-time boys basketball scoring leader. “I thought it could be something I’m decent at and something different. It’s definitely a lot less pressure.”

It turned out to be all of those things.

Cugini, who last winter broke the WPIAL all-time scoring record (Valley’s Tom Pipkins, 2,838, 1989-93) with 3,189 points, had never played organized volleyball. A 6-foot-2 middle blocker, Cugini is among five seniors who are first-time players for the burgeoning club team, which plays an independent schedule.

“For being a club team that’s only in its fourth year, they look good,” first-year coach Matt Mlecko said. “I’ve been very impressed with the boys.”

The lone returning seniors are setter Sam Buchanan and right-side hitter Ben Tarqinio. They are joined by senior newcomers Cugini, middle blockers Jude Truschel and Michael Cerny and defensive specialists Tommy Quinn and John Paul Calvino.

The Crusaders (3-1 as of April 19) play a mixed schedule of WPIAL opponents and small Southwestern Pa. Christian schools. They also are headed to day-long tournaments against WPIAL competition at Penn Hills (April 22), Hempfield (April 29) and OLSH (May 13).

“So far, we’re playing really well,” said Buchanan, who plays year-round for Steel City Volleyball Club. “I’ve already seen a lot of improvement. … I think we will do pretty well in the tournaments. I am curious. I am excited to see how well our team will do.”

Other key members of the team include outside hitters Sam Duer, a freshman, and Will Scoscia, a sophomore; freshman libero Henry Buchanan; sophomore defensive specialsts Nolan Thiel and Kenny Fort; and sophomore middle blocker Joe Chufo.

Cugini, who accepted a basketball scholarship to Division II Pitt Johnstown, is learning his new sport on the fly.

“At first, I had a problem not going straight up,” he said “I would jump high enough to block the ball a lot of the time, but I would block it and it wouldn’t go back inbounds. It’s been hard getting used to blocking and reaching over and angling my hand in a certain direction.”

Mlecko, who played at North Allegheny and is a former middle school coach in the Diocesan League, said Cugini’s athleticism has translated easily onto the volleyball court.

“He is a freak athlete,” Mlecko said. “I don’t know how else to put it. He’s so far above everybody else when he jumps that I don’t worry about him getting blocked.”

Said Sam Buchanan, “He’s getting to the blocks faster and he’s getting up higher. At the start of the season, he would jump up and he’d get hit on the shoulder by a ball. It would go out. But the fact that he even got up that high on a block is pretty crazy.

“I feel like if he had played volleyball since his freshman year, he would be insanely good.”

Aquinas Academy might not have a volleyball team if it weren’t for Sam Buchanan. After covid canceled the 2020 season, the school planned to scrap the club team for ‘21. But Buchanan pleaded with school officials to let the team continue. The administrators agreed. The Crusaders played only three matches in that shortened season, but they practiced daily and kept the program alive. Buchanan hopes the Aquinas Academy boys volleyball team will join the WPIAL someday.

While Cugini is a four-time all-state boys basketball player, he knows Sam Buchanan runs the show in volleyball.

“He’s extremely good and extremely skilled,” Cugini said of Buchanan. “It always helps to have a guy like him.”

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