TOPEKA — All the Westview Warriors have come a long way in the course of reaching the Class 2A boys basketball state title game, but in at least one way, one Warrior has journeyed furthest of all.
Senior Damon Hershberger wasn't even sure he'd be coming out for the team shortly before the season started. He hadn't played basketball in almost a full year as he pondered his decision.
Hershberger had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee just seven games into his junior season, necessitating surgery and shelving him for the remainder of that winter.
Then about midway through soccer season this past fall, he tore the same ACL again and underwent more surgery, this time having both scar tissue from the initial surgery and a small piece of the ACL cut out.
Since then, however, he has earned a starting spot for unranked Westivew (23-4), which faces top-ranked Indianapolis Park Tudor (23-4) in the Saturday, March 29, 2A final at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indy. Tip-off is slated for about 12:45 p.m.
"I honestly didn't know if I'd be able to play," Hershberger said of resuming his basketball career. "It was kind of a last-minute decision. (The second surgery) was about six weeks from the first practice. The biggest question was just, would it hold up?, And, would it feel good?"
Frankly, coach Rob Yoder's biggest question from a practical standpoint was, would it even matter much if it did hold up?
"He was really late, came right as the season was about to start, and he said, 'Do you think I should play or not?' and I said, 'Well, I have no idea,'" Yoder recalled. "I told him, 'If I knew what your lateral speed was going to be, I would know what to tell you.' I felt the best idea was to come and try it, because we didn't know. He came back and was a lot faster than I thought he was going to be. He's obviously worked his way back in, and now that answer's pretty easy."
The 6-foot Hershberger hardly has hearty statistics — he's averaging 2.6 points and 1.3 rebounds, buoyed by his five points and four boards in the semistate win over Cass — but his value stretches beyond his numbers.
"He can defend a variety of positions," Yoder said. "He's guarded from little guys to big guys. He's pretty strong, weighs enough to guard bigger guys, and has quick enough feet to guard smaller guys, so he gives us a lot of options. He's always going to guard one of the (opponent's) better players. That's just his role."
In the semistate, Hershberger primarily guarded Cass senior Blake Hadley, who went in averaging 14.9 points, but was limited to nine.
"I'm not a big scorer, but I feel like my team needs for me to step up and make defensive stops, get some rebounds, and just play hard," Hershberger said.
It was his teammates who helped convince him to return this season.
"It came down to them talking to me," Hershberger said. "They all talked me into it, said I gotta come out."
Not that Hershberger didn't have doubts regardless.
"When I first started playing, I was pretty nervous," said Hershberger, who was not immediately cleared medically and made his season debut six games into the season. "It was in the back of my head that something could happen again, but it feels good, and as many games as I've gone through now,I don't really think about it much."
Saturday's championship will likely be Hershberger's final interscholastic basketball game. He's leaning toward majoring in farm management, initially at Ivy Tech, then continuing at Purdue.
Some basketball questions will always remain for a promising player who was robbed of nearly all his junior season and the start of the next one, but playing in a state title contest has helped soothe the mystery.
"I wish I could've played last year," Hershberger said. "That and all the basketball I missed last summer, I feel like I could've been a lot further along with my game, but just getting back on the court was a huge accomplishment. Even if we hadn't made it to state, I think I would've felt a huge sense of accomplishment, but now that we've made it, it's just icing. It's almost unreal."