Driving layup after driving layup after driving layup. Vinnie Cugini was like a broken record for most of the first quarter of his team’s game Monday evening, his ability to finish and fill up the basket quickly and in bunches on full display.

And while opposing players spent much of their time chasing Cugini, it’s Cugini who is chasing a record this season. There have been lots of big point scorers in the WPIAL over the years, but by season’s end, this senior who attends one of the district’s smallest schools might be No. 1.

Cugini is a student at Aquinas Academy, a tiny school located in Hampton. How tiny? Well, there are only 17 boys in the senior class. There might be fewer than two dozen spots available in the school’s parking lot, and there were about that many fans in attendance at Monday’s nonsection game against Propel Andrew Street. 

As expected, Cugini lit up the scoreboard, something that has become standard during his career. Against Propel Andrew Street, Cugini poured in 40 points to propel Aquinas Academy to a 60-45 win. The triumph improved Aquinas Academy to 3-0 and gave Cugini 117 points this season. He scored 33 and 44 in the team’s first two games. He’s now sitting at 2,195 career points, putting him 643 points shy of the WPIAL record of 2,838 set by Valley’s Tom Pipkins in 1993.

“It would be really cool to do,” said Cugini, a Pitt-Johnstown recruit. “It would be something I could carry with me my whole life. It’s a really hard record to break. I didn’t really realize how many points that really was.”

But when you score like Cugini, the points pile up quickly. Cugini has a chance to become a four-time WPIAL scoring champion this season. After bursting onto the scene by averaging 34.1 points a game as a freshman, Cugini tallied 39.2 as a sophomore and 36.2 as a junior. Last season, he reached 2,000 points in his 55th career game, making him the fastest in WPIAL history to ever do it.

Cugini, a 6-foot-1 guard, was ultra-efficient Monday against a Propel Andrew Street team that, despite playing very hard, was overmatched. Cugini finished 16 of 23 from the field and 6 of 6 from the free-throw line. He knocked down two 3-pointers but did most of his damage from close range on drives to the basket. He had 18 points in the first quarter and spent as much time on the bench in the second half as he did on the floor due to the Crusaders holding such a large lead. Cugini has been playing with an injured thumb, something that could affect him all season. If it wasn’t for the injury, some of those driving layups would likely be driving dunks.

“Everybody is aware of [the record], but we’re not trying to make it something that’s a goal of ours. It’s not,” said Aquinas Academy coach George Yokitis. “If it occurs, it occurs. And in certain games, when we’re ahead, maybe I penalize Vinnie by not playing him. Like tonight, when he scores 40 points, but what could he have scored tonight? So, we’re walking a line of this. A difficult line. You never want to embarrass the other team.”

Despite Cugini’s penchant for scoring at will for three-plus seasons, he has had his detractors. Some question exactly how good he really is, the argument typically being that he plays in the smallest classification and has been known to be a high-volume shooter who at times has fired the ball up close to 40 times a game. To the haters, Cugini has two words: Thank you.

“I just thank them because that used to really affect me, but it kind of motivates me more and more,” said Cugini, who played AAU ball for Mason Elite.

Cugini said that the criticism once affected him so much that he considered transferring to Central Catholic. 

“It was either here or Central, and my heart led me here,” he said. “A lot of people doubted me and said I only play 1A and I shoot too much, this and that, so I thought I had to go somewhere else to prove myself. But I realized at the end of the day, it’s what makes me happy. And every day at school here, I love this place.”

The gaudy point totals didn’t begin showing up when he arrived at Aquinas Academy. They started long before then. He would often score 30 or 40 in a game as a grade schooler at St. Raphael’s in Morningside — the Cuginis live in that area of the city — and even once scored 51.

“He was playing for the varsity team in fourth and fifth grade, playing with the seventh and eighth graders,” said Cugini’s father, Vince. “When he was in eighth grade, we went all the way to the championship with the diocese. We had a couple of eighth graders and a fifth grader. We couldn’t even field a team. It was just all him. That’s when I was like, ‘He’s going to be something decent.’”

Actually, way more than just decent. It didn’t take Yokitis long to realize he had something special.

“When I met him, he was just this normal, 5-foot-8 looking kid,” Yokitis said. “But he was just so quick with the ball. This kid could really score. And then we played teams with athletes like Clairton, and they couldn’t stay in front of him. And he was just a freshman.”

Cugini is a basketball junkie who is also an excellent student. He holds a 4.0 GPA and plans on majoring in business at Pitt-Johnstown, a Division II school and the only college to offer Cugini a scholarship.

“More importantly, he’s an exceptional kid,” Yokitis said. “He’s a great student. He has no ego. The kids all love him. And I think that’s so important. It shows great leadership. He’s worked hard. He’s a gentleman. He’s just a great kid.”

And in a few months, Cugini could own one of WPIAL basketball’s greatest records. WPIAL teams are allowed to play 22 regular-season games, so if Cugini would play only 19 more games the rest of the season, he would need to average about 34 a game to break Pipkins’ record. But Cugini said his main goal is to bring the program its first playoff win. And if that happens, it might in turn help Cugini in his record chase.

“That would mean everything to me,” Cugini said of winning a playoff game. “I think that would be a really good way to end my career here at Aquinas and kind of just certify that I’m more than just a scorer or someone that just shoots a bunch of times or whatever people like to say. I think if I do that, I’ll be super proud. And I think if I do, that will also help me beat the record, because that would be a couple of extra games that we’ll have.”

Star QB sets school record

As a quarterback, Armstrong’s Cadin Olsen finished his high school career as one of the most prolific passers in WPIAL history. But Olsen is also an excellent basketball player, something the Penn football recruit showed Monday when he went off for a school-record 43 points in leading the River Hawks (3-0) to a 64-50 win against Leechburg (1-2). Olsen was named all-section after his sophomore and junior seasons.

GCC girls take down Neshannock

A defending PIAA champion suffered its first loss. Greensburg Central Catholic (3-0) made the trip to Lawrence County and handed reigning PIAA Class 2A champion Neshannock (2-1) a 61-56 defeat. Freshman Eric Gribble led the Centurions with 23 points, while Mya Morgan added 14 and Avery Davis 11. Megan Pallerino led Neshannock with 17 points. Greensburg C.C. plays in Class 2A, while Neshannock was bumped up to Class 3A this season.

Freshmen drive Shady Side girls to win

A pair of talented freshmen helped Shady Side Academy improve to 3-0 following a 47-46 win at Freeport (0-3). Maggie Spell paced the Bulldogs with 23 points, and Karis Thomas added 13. Melaina DeZort led Freeport with 16 points. Thomas, a point guard, scored 15 and 30 points in Shady Side’s first two games.

Three stars

*** — Kaley Rohanna, Waynesburg. Rohanna outscored Waynesburg’s opponent all by herself, tallying 25 points in a 51-24 win against visiting Carmichaels. Rohanna connected on two 3-pointers and was 7 of 7 from the line.

** — Natalie Wetzel, Peters Township. One of the WPIAL’s top sophomores, Wetzel scored 24 points in leading Peters Township to a 63-45 win at Bishop Canevin. Wetzel already has several Division I offers.

* — Nora Johns, Quaker Valley. A two-time PIAA track champion knows her way around the basketball court, as well. Johns scored 13 points in Quaker Valley’s 44-33 home win against Rochester. Johns is a two-time PIAA Class 2A champion in the 300-meter hurdles.

Brad is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at beverett@unionprogress.com.

Brad Everett

Brad is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at beverett@unionprogress.com.