Ashlyn Herlihy got her first whiff of Division I basketball in the ninth grade.
An inadvertent elbow from Atascadero High standout and future Cal Poly wing Mary Kate Evans caught the then-freshman from Arroyo Grande on the nose, shattering the bone to the point it required surgery.
It was an unexpected crossroads thrust onto a young teenager early in her varsity career.
Or, at least it would have been had Herlihy considered even for a second of backing down or walking away.
“The whole time after was about when we could get the clearance to play again,” she recalled. “I was feeling fine, I just wanted to get back playing. Sitting and not practicing with the team was miserable for me.”
Herlihy returned later that season to help the Eagles’ playoff push, donning a protective facemask and reassuming her spot in the post as a lanky, learning 6-footer.
“She’s not going to miss any more time than absolutely necessary,” said Arroyo Grande coach Bryan Hutchens, whose first season at the helm coincided with Herlihy’s rookie year. “She went right back out there and battled every game for her teammates.”
Now a 6-1 junior with sound footwork and a soft shooting touch to match her intensity and energy, Herlihy was the fulcrum at both ends of the floor for an Eagles squad that ran to an undefeated PAC 8 championship and reeled off 20 straight victories until a second-round playoff defeat at home for the second straight year.
Herlihy averaged 19.9 points, 10 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game and is the clear-cut choice to be this year’s Jay Cowitz Award winner as The Tribune’s County Player of the Year for girls basketball.
“I’ll never forget,” the first time Hutchens met Herlihy, he said. “I was watching the incoming freshmen from Paulding (Middle School) practice, and I noticed this tall girl high-fiving everybody in the layup line.
“I thought, ‘Wow, what great energy,’ because that’s something you always look for. So I met with her parents and her about coming up to varsity, and then it was off to the races.”
Thanks to year-round dedication — with some time off to win undefeated league titles and county-wide awards in volleyball — the rest of Herlihy’s game is getting up to speed.
Getting to an outer dimension
Standing 6-1 with a long wingspan and an athletic build, Herlihy knows she has a step up on virtually every local girl that tries to guard her.
But she has no allusions of that advantage sticking around if she reaches her childhood dream of playing college basketball.
“Certain colleges have point guards that are my height,” she said with a half-laugh. “We’ll ask colleges where they see me, and they’ll say at (shooting guard).”
Thus began an effort to round out Herlihy’s game after a successful sophomore campaign in which she averaged 12.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per contest but took just four 3-pointers, making one.
She took upwards of 300 shots a day in the gym before going home and spending even more hours practicing on her home court with her father.
The fruits of her labor came this past season, as Herlihy averaged just less than one 3 per game with 25 makes, including the game-winning triple to beat Liberty in the early-season San Luis Obispo/Morro Bay Tournament.
“She worked hard to create that 3-point shot,” Hutchens said. “She’s a very good post-up player, and that’s all we were asking her to do when she was younger. But she’s a naturally good shooter, and that jump shot completely opened her game up.”
Already a double-double waiting to happen on any given night, the added threat of a perimeter shot made Herlihy’s scoring statistics explode.
She had her current career high of 29 points in a season-opening win over Cabrillo, followed by point totals of 24 and 28 in the first three games of the SLO/Morro Bay tourney.
Herlihy scored in double figures in all 27 games this season and had 11 double-doubles.
After scoring 20 or more points in three nonleague games as a sophomore, she reached the 20-point plateau 13 times as a junior — six times in PAC 8 play alone.
“There was no doubt she was the best player in the league,” San Luis Obispo coach Dan Monroe said. “We didn’t even really vote on it at the all-league meeting. It was a done deal.
“From my point of view, that outside shot she added was huge. She always had good post moves and good footwork, and that’s just a testament to the hard work she put in.”
Herlihy’s effort has not stopped since she was first called up to varsity as a freshman, nor has the evolution of her game.
Finding a handle on the future
To play either of the guard positions or small forward in college, Herlihy will be required to handle the ball more and create off the dribble, along with shooting from the perimeter.
So even though sophomore point guard Brynn Thoming showed she is more than capable of quarterbacking the Eagles’ offense and shouldering the primary ball-handling responsibility, Herlihy’s touches in the backcourt will increase her senior year.
“It makes her a better weapon for us,” Hutchens said. “And if a school is looking at her, she has to show she has those handles instead of just playing in the post.”
Herlihy has been going through guard drills with Kevin Hitchen and the 3Ball Academy as well as during those multiple-hour sessions at her home hoop.
“In our press break, I would come to the middle and turn and look,” she said. “We kind of want that option where I can dribble up the court, be another valve for our point guard Brynn and our other guards.”
Herlihy is drawing interest from Big West Conference schools such as Cal Poly and UC Davis, as well as teams in the West Coast Conference. There’s even been some communication with a school from the Atlantic Coast Conference, but Herlihy said she’s keeping her expectations tempered.
“I want to go somewhere I can play,” she said. “I wouldn’t choose a college because of the name and then ride the bench the whole time.”
But before that time comes, Herlihy has a senior season to try to defend Arroyo Grande’s undefeated league title and avenge back-to-back second-round playoff exits on its home court.
“I always tell our girls that it’s on all of us,” she said. “We know we work hard in practice, but what do you do outside the gym? Because that’s truly what matters. You can spend two hours in here and get 100 shots up in practice, but afterwards, every team that’s doing that and more is going to beat you when you meet.”
Strong and guiding words that might not have left Herlihy’s mouth as a freshman, but shed light on the strides she’s made.
“Her leadership is a maturation that she’s embraced,” Hutchens said. “She continues to lead by example, but understands the importance of having that communication with her team. Each year she grows more and more.”
Tribune All-County First Team
Player of the Year: Ashlyn Herlihy, Arroyo Grande, junior
Sabrina Degnan, Atascadero, Sr.
Olivia Galindo, Arroyo Grande, Sr.
Jacqueline San Jule, Mission Prep, Jr.
I’Raya Smith, Mission Prep, Jr.
Meghan Smith, Arroyo Grande, So.
Brynn Thoming, Arroyo Grande, So.
Tess Boehm, Mission Prep, senior
Stephanie Brenner, San Luis Obispo, junior
Maddie Leong, Atascadero, senior
Gwen Lundy, Paso Robles, junior
Olivia MacDonald, Morro Bay, senior
Kylie Mendez, Nipomo, sophomore
Maribel Arroyo, Shandon, junior
Jordynn Dorado, Nipomo, junior
Annie Elterman, Templeton, sophomore
Roni Garrison, Coastal Christian, senior
Alaina Hogeboom, Arroyo Grande, senior
Reagan Kniffen, Coast Union, junior
Eliza Lewis, Morro Bay, freshman
Taylor Neal, Mission Prep, senior
Cami Storlie, San Luis Obispo, freshman