The Monessen High School boys basketball team averages 91 points a game, the best in the WPIAL. But there was no way to quantify the points Monessen scored Friday night with an autistic player from an opposing team.
Austin Herpak is a senior at Mapletown, a small school in Greene County. Herpak is autistic and never played basketball before this season. Due to various reasons, Mapletown is down to six players, including Herpak.
Mapletown has yet to win a game this season and lost to Monessen, 102-34. Herpak saw considerable playing time in the game, but he did more than play. He led Mapletown in points with 12 — and got a lot of help from Monessen.
Monessen knew of Herpak, and the Greyhounds didn’t guard Herpak when he got the ball. If he missed a shot, Monessen sometimes rebounded and threw the ball back to him.
It was a most memorable night for Herpak — and others.
“You see a lot of negative stuff that goes on in sports,” said Rick Hill, Mapletown’s first-year coach. “It always seems to be the fights, or the pushing of an official that gets publicized. Those things need to be covered, but I think sometimes we forget about the little things that go on and should be publicized.
"Thirty years from now when those Monessen kids are sitting around telling stories, they won't remember the final score of the game. They'll remember how they helped that boy." — Mapletown football coach and assistant athletic director George Messich
“This was one of the good things. Austin even hugged one of their players in the game. A lot of kids might shy away from that. But the Monessen kids were cool with him. They accepted him. It really makes you feel good to see.”
Herpak is in his first year at Mapletown. He lives with foster parents in the district and decided he wanted to try basketball this year. Hill said Herpak is “pretty high on the autism spectrum.” But he was more than happy to take Herpak.
“Never a question. He works really, really hard and he makes you smile,” Hill said.
Dan Torisky is the longtime president of the Autism Society of Pittsburgh, and said an autistic child can benefit greatly from being involved in a school activity or a sport.
“Anyone who has ever been closely involved with a child on the autism spectrum will tell you they are full of surprises across the entire spectrum of human experience, from sports, science, music and the arts,” said Torisky, who has an autistic son. “All they need is a chance to show their stuff.”
Monessen wasn’t the first game Herpak played. He played a little in a few others and scored, as well.
“California was great with him, too,” Hill said.
A day before the Monessen game, Mapletown football coach and assistant athletic director George Messich called Monessen coach Joe Salvino and told him about Herpak and how Mapletown is struggling, averaging only 26 points a game.
“Joe told me, ‘You make sure that kid plays a lot,’ ” Messich said.
Hill also talked with Salvino before the game about Herpak. Monessen, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s No. 1-ranked WPIAL Class A team, led Mapletown, 45-0, after the first quarter. Herpak came in the game in the second quarter.
“I’ve been involved in high school sports for 37 years,” Messich said. “What Monessen did is the classiest thing I have ever seen in all those years. … They weren’t patronizing Austin. When he was scoring, you would’ve thought he just hit the Powerball. That’s how excited he was. Thirty years from now when those Monessen kids are sitting around telling stories, they won’t remember the final score of the game. They’ll remember how they helped that boy.”
"Coach, the cheerleaders are going to love me now." — Austin Herpak
At halftime, Salvino said his players expressed concern about not wanting to embarrass Mapletown in any way.
“I was very proud of how my players handled the situation,” Salvino said. “One of them even hugged him during the game. I think one of the things it did for our kids was maybe make them realize how fortunate they are.”
Herpak was elated in the locker room after the game, and Hill will always remember one of Herpak’s comments.
“I told him after the game that he had the most points on the team,” Hill said. “He said, ‘No way.’ I told him he had 12. He says to me, ‘Coach, the cheerleaders are going to love me now.’ ”
Mike White: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh.
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