- Associated Press - Saturday, January 30, 2016

GREENSBORO, Pa. (AP) - The gymnasium was strangely quiet, no squeaking of tennis shoes, or shouting from players or hollering from coaches.

The school day ended more than an hour earlier, but on a raw January afternoon when the echoes of a bustling basketball practice normally reverberate out the gym’s double doors and into the lobby of Mapletown High School, well that isn’t the case on this day, or any during this season - at least when the boys basketball team is on the court.

Instead, five teenage boys gather around the lane to watch their teammate shoot free throws. The player’s first shot goes off the backboard and in. The second does the same. After each goes in, the gym gets a little louder.

Before Austin Herpak hoists another shot, he makes a quick remark to the player who handed him the basketball.

“You’ll start making them like me soon,” Herpak said with a laugh while lightly patting a teammate on the arm.

The Maples’ roster has only six players and Herpak, an 18-year-old junior, is the first player off the bench. Moments like these are the kind that have kept Mapletown’s winless basketball team, which includes three athletes with no playing experience - coming back each day.

Herpak is autistic and faces many challenges, but you’ll rarely find him without a smile on his face or bringing them to the faces of those around him.

“He doesn’t give up trying to make you laugh and smile,” Mapletown junior Riley Seward said. “It helps lighten the mood, especially when you’re down 69-4 at halftime.

“He’ll come into the locker room and say, ‘It’s OK guys, I’ll score next half.’ Sometimes he’ll say, ‘It’s OK, you’ll do better next time,’ or ‘That’s why I get all the cheerleaders, because I make those shots.’”

For the love of the game

Herpak has captured the hearts and attention of many around the region. Monessen helped him score a team-high 12 points earlier this month, Bentworth gave him a game ball and opposing fans often cheer for him.

His shooting form might mirror that of someone who has played the sport for years, but it was only four months ago when he first picked up a basketball.

When Herpak moved to the district and saw the basketball hoop outside the home of his foster parents - Betty and William Miller - he spent all of his free time on the court with his three foster siblings and the Millers’ grandchildren.

On that court, he practiced dribbling, shooting and finding ways to make his new family members smile with his jokes. He often stopped in the middle of games to do exercises.

“He loves doing things to make people laugh,” Betty Miller said, recalling Herpak’s antics on the family basketball court.

Herpak is as quick to celebrate a tee a teammate’s success as he is to enjoy his own. When Mapletown made a three-point shot in the second half against Monessen earlier this month, Herpak raised his arms in the air in celebration as he trotted up the court.

When he made a contested shot against Geibel Catholic in December, he immediately ran to hug the opposing coach. He’s even hugged opposing players after they scored.

Herpak finds solace on the basketball court. He has good days and bad in and out of the classroom. Mapletown head coach Rick Hill and his assistant, Ryan Wise, have to calm him down when he gets too hyper, or boost his spirits when he gets frustrated, but time and again, he comes back to the gym to learn, laugh and compete.

“Everything actually,” Herpak said of what he loves about the game. “If my teammates make a shot, I get excited. I’ll say, ‘Now you made a shot, we can win now.’”

Each shot brings a joyful expression to his face, but while he’s laughable and outgoing, Herpak also can be quiet and reserved, often slapping the back of his right hand into his left palm when he’s anxious.

“He’s just a great kid,” Hill said. “His enthusiasm for the game is tremendous and he loves to work at it. If more kids had his heart and desire just to be out there playing and having fun, this game would be a lot different for a lot of people.”

When Mapletown played at Jefferson-Morgan last week, Hill was outside the gym during halftime of the girls’ game when he heard the crowd clapping. They were cheering for Austin, who was shooting three-pointers during the intermission.

Later that night, the Rockets’ cheerleaders chanted, “Austin, Austin, Austin,” throughout the game. After the 54-30 loss, he took pictures with them.

“It’s been pretty cool,” Herpak said of his experiences. “Getting pictures with the cheerleaders would probably be the (best memory). I want to get to the NBA. Is that what it’s called? If I make money, I can buy my own mansion.”

Jokester

The Maples’ average margin of defeat is 42.6 points and they’re averaging just 28.2 points per game. Hill, a former standout at California University, is the ultimate competitor, so much so that he’s playing for the West Virginia Wildcatz in the American Basketball Association at the age of 45.

Hill couldn’t help but laugh following the 68-point loss to Monessen. When he told Herpak how many points he scored, Herpak hugged his coach and replied, “The cheerleaders are really going to love me now.”

“Right there, that explains him,” Hill said. “During a game, he’ll say something totally off the wall and I’ll start laughing. I’ll forget about everything. He’s so full of energy. He’s brought a lot of the reasons why I coach basketball back.”

After Herpak finishes shooting his sets of free throws at practice, Hill has his players go through a motion drill. As the speed increased, Herpak found himself out of position, but freshman Brian Hoge quickly directed him to his spot on the right wing.

Wise smiled and nodded in approval. When the pair took over the program and first met Herpak, who was surprisingly shy at first, they didn’t know what to expect. Kids can be cruel, but they quickly learned this group was different.

“I don’t know if you could ask for a better group of kids to be placed around him,” Wise said. “If it weren’t for these kids, Rick and I wouldn’t be able to do this because they go out there and accept him. When he comes to practice and see his excitement just to be here, it’s cool to see their reaction. It’s a perfect match.”

The Maples are not immune from frustration after a loss and practices are a challenge with only six players, but Herpak’s teammates know that they are playing a part in something far greater than any outcome of a game.

“It’s really boosted his spirits,” Hill said. “He’s always smiling and talking about playing in the NBA. For him to have those dreams and to fulfill them, there are no words to explain it. It’s really a feel-good story. I’m proud of him and everyone in this community is proud of him.”

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Online:

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Information from: Observer-Reporter, https://www.observer-reporter.com

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