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Herl steps up early for Oakley boys in win

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

OAKLEY -- Last year, Oakley High School guard Darius Herl was a role player on a 10-11 squad. He averaged 3.5 points per game and hit just six 3-pointers all winter. Herl reached double figures once with a 10-point effort in a win against Quinter on Jan. 21.

This season, the 6-foot-3 Herl had to move from shooting guard to point guard because Cody Gabel, expected to start at point guard, suffered a season-ending knee injury in football. Herl has to pilot a team considered by some to be one of northwest Kansas' most talented and experienced squads this winter.

On Friday, Herl delivered a terrific game in the Plainsmen's season-opening 61-50 victory against Northwest Kansas League foe Leoti-Wichita County.

"Just stepped into the position well," Herl said.

Herl finished 7 of 10 from the field, 2 of 2 from the 3-point line and 3 of 6 on free throws for 19 points. He also tacked on three assists and played well defensively.

"I thought he did a great job on both sides of the floor," coach Steve Allison said.

Oakley, known for its inside presence with 6-5 senior forward Austin Baalman and 6-6 senior forward Stephen Llewellyn, two of the area's top returners, led virtually all game. However, an energetic, physical Wichita Co. squad kept the margin close. Oakley broke open a 27-27 tie at halftime with a 13-0 run after intermission.

"Lots of noise, lots of getting pumped up," Allison said. "We knew that they were going to bring a lot of emotion. Leoti plays hard."

Baalman finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds, while Llewellyn collected 14 points and six rebounds.

"They open up a lot of shots for you at the perimeter to score a lot, it takes a lot of pressure off of you and the rest of the team," Herl said.

On Oakley's first basket of the game, Llewellyn gathered in a perfectly timed alley-oop pass from senior Cayle Hubert and dunked. Later, the two players had a similar play, but Llewellyn just laid the ball in.

"It pumped us up pretty good and really brought us together as a team, got our momentum going," Herl said of the slam.

Wichita Co., which finished 9-11 in coach Nate Schmitt's first season last winter, were noisy in pregame warmups and huddles and played with constant enthusiasm. Oakley led 20-15 after the first quarter and Herl hit four straight field goals, including both treys, in a 2 minute, 8 second stretch. In a Feb. 11 win against Wichita Co. last season, Herl didn't score, and took just one shot.

"(The 3s) really pumped me up throughout the game and kept me going," Herl said.

But the Indians used a 9-0 run at the end of the first half to tie the game. Senior Jantz Budde posted a game-high 21 points and Leoti sunk nine treys. After the break, though, Oakley regained control.

"We just knew that we had to step it up, and we couldn't let them have another run," Herl said. "We needed a big run of our own and stop theirs."

Oakley missed its first four shots after intermission, but then Baalman converted on back-to-back turnaround jumpers. A long pass led to a Llewellyn basket.

"It's a good test to not cave under pressure, not let them intimidate you," Allison said. "I thought they did a good job."

With 3:52 left in the third quarter, junior Casey Day committed an intentional foul when Herl drove to the basket. He made one of two free throws. Later in the run, Herl collected a steal and a score, and then tallied a basket off a steal from junior Eric Rucker.

"I thought he made some good decisions, he didn't turn the ball over a lot," Allison said. "He is a threat to score all the way to the rim, and the pullup. That makes him a dangerous weapon as a point guard."

In the fourth quarter, Wichita Co. closed the game to eight points, but Oakley scored three times in less than two minutes off offensive rebounds from missed throws -- a rare play.

"You don't count on that," Allison said.

The first time, Llewellyn scored when he went around a defender. The second occasion, Baalman grabbed the rebound and passed to Herl, who scored. The final one, Baalman missed a free throw, but collected his own rebound and scored.