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Decade Rewind: St. Thomas Aquinas celebrated quite a run

The Canton Repository 2010s Decade Boys Basketball: Even after going .500 one regular season, St. Thomas Aquinas batted a thousand in district championship games during a magical basketball run.

The St. Thomas Aquinas Knights were a rocket that blasted off every March during boys basketball season.

They won district championships in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, making them Stark County’s runaway team of the decade among the lower enrollment divisions in boys basketball.

The Knights knew how to celebrate their landings in Sweet 16s.

One time after a big district win, all of the players aimed at the center circle in Salem and came flying together on their bellies. Then their 20-something head coach skidded into the pile, with his necktie as landing gear.
“It was a perfect fit ... my style of coaching and naivety paired with kids and families willing to do anything asked of them,” recalls the coach, Matt Hackenberg, now the 34-year-old head coach at GlenOak. “The players were asked to do difficult and tedious things over and over and never flinched, resulting in mentally tough and disciplined teams.”

A 104-43 win in the 2013 Division III sectional finals got things fired up. The Knights reached the Sweet 16 and came close to carrying on before falling 54-50 to Beachwood. Seniors Will Burger and Anthony Snyder set a tone of toughness.

In 2014, they dropped to Division IV and soared to the state finals. As in 2013, when they careened through the turbulence of a tough schedule, their regular season was a meteor shower, leaving them at 11-11.
By the district tournament, they broke into the clear, in one game thrashing McDonald 90-48.

They rolled 58-37 over Cornerstone Christian in the regional semis, then advanced to the final four in a 52-50 thriller against Richmond Heights.

“Richmond Heights was a really good team with all kinds of tournament experience,” recalls Anthony Moeglin, who was a junior that year. “We fell behind quickly. Maybe the lights were too bright. Coach Matt got a timeout and pretty much just said, ‘OK ... relax now.’”

Versatile 6-foot-3 senior Austin Hill came into his own and made first-team All-Ohio, the ideal trailer in Aquinas’ take on the fast break. Hackenberg came to know Moeglin as “a very good basketball player with the absolute best set of intangible tools I’ve seen.”

The Knights reached the final four short in stature but with skilled, hard-working teammates all over the floor. Daniel Piero and Sam Pusateri were part of the glue. Jacob Paul was a sophomore launching the start of a memorable career. Frank DiMarzio brought muscle.

Before facing the Knights in the 2014 state semifinals, the coach from Harvest Prep referred to the Knights as “Looieville Aquinas” and admitted he had never heard of the school. Aquinas introduced itself with a 54-41 victory, slept in the clouds at a Columbus hotel, then ran out of gas against undefeated Convoy Crestview in the state title game.

Many of the Knights talked about savoring the moment, respecting all of the worthy teams that never got that far. They came quite close to going again.

“Our coaching staff — John Dempsey, Greg Duplin, Lee Foster, Joe Pellegrene — had great chemistry and worked really well with the school, community and players,” Hackenberg said. “We had tremendous leadership among the players.”

Gino Pellegrene, Logan Newman, Bryson Knott, Michael Sommers, Andrew Duplin and Jaret Knox were among players who helped extend the run of district titles.

Hackenberg changed the starting lineup of the 2014 state finals team, leaving it very short, but very good in ball handling at all five positions. Moeglin, a shade taller than 6 feet, played center. The Knights learned how to get a lead and toy with opponents.

The postgame flying piles became a ritual. A player would look around and say, “Let’s go Knights.” Others would join in, softly at first. “Let’s go Knights” would get louder and louder until reaching a mutually understood crescendo, signaling the group sprint into a mosh pit.

The next year, Paul might have been a force at point guard but instead moved to “two guard.” Moeglin went from center to point guard for his senior year. It worked beautifully, albeit painfully for Moeglin, who played through a shoulder injury.

The 2015 team produced the best regular season of the era (18-4) and lost in the regional finals in Canton’s Memorial Field House. Tuscarawas Central Catholic won the battle for a final-four spot, 51-48. The 2016 Knights again reached the regional title game, falling to Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph, 51-46.

The memories are for a lifetime. These years later, the coaches shoot each other random texts about some inside team joke.

Amid the coronavirus landscape, Moeglin has moved back in with his parents and into his bedroom from high school, which is filled with mementos from his Aquinas days. The other day Austin Hill was driving by and gave him a wave, leading to a phone conversation later in the day.

Piero and Moeglin remain best buddies who were roommates at John Carroll, where Moeglin was the quarterback of a historic season that included a win over Mount Union and a trip to the national final four.

Moeglin backpedaled to the final seconds of the win that got his high school alma mater to the basketball state finals.

“We were dribbling out the clock when I looked over and saw our crowd,” he said. “Everybody was hugging and jumping in the air.”

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