Christian Carroll didn't get much playing time last year as a sophomore for the Golden Valley High boys basketball team.
Carroll found himself behind a logjam of Cougar guards, including third-year starting point guard A.J. Hernandez.
Watching Carroll this year, it's hard to believe he averaged 1.7 points per game.
"Last year was a learning experience for me," Carroll said. "At first, I thought I would get more time during the season. Later on in the season, I knew I wasn't going to play a lot.
"So I learned a lot by watching A.J. I watched him run the team and how he played defense, getting his hands in the passing lanes. In a way practices were my games."
Carroll is a big reason the No. 4-seeded Cougars (24-4) will host No. 12 Bethel of Vallejo tonight in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division 2 quarterfinal game at Cougar Arena.
Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.
"Sometimes in life you have to wait your turn," said Golden Valley coach Keith Hunter, whose team is riding a 14-game winning streak. "You have to be patient. I was very honest with him last year. I gave him the opportunity to go down."
Carroll worked hard on his game during the offseason, shooting for an hour almost every day, followed by pick-up games.
"I set my goals high," Carroll said. "I think I wanted to average 15 points, five rebounds and five assists. I didn't want to settle for five points per game."
The work hasn't stopped during the season. Golden Valley coach Keith Hunter says Carroll watches and studies as much film as any player he's had.
As a result, Carroll averaged 14.5 points to go along with 5.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game.
"He's a basketball player," Hunter said. "Some times you're an athlete and some times you're a basketball player. You see a lot of athletes who can't do all the stuff he does on the court and I'm not saying Christian isn't a bad athlete either."
Instead, Carroll improved by playing against the older players in practice.
All his work helped him take on a much bigger role this year along with fellow juniors Josh Sykes and Evan Stillahn.
"Me, Josh and Evan know each other really well," Carroll said. "Josh and Evan knew each other forever. I met them in sixth grade. Josh comes over to my house and takes naps before games. Evan is my best friend. We've played a lot of basketball together."
The Cougars' big three will have to play well against a Jaguars team that is very different than the Oak Ridge squad Golden Valley edged 50-49 on Wednesday night.
Bethel (15-13) has rebounded from a 6-11 start to the season by winning nine of its last 11 games, including a 74-72 upset of No. 5 Granite Bay.
"This team is just the opposite of Oak Ridge," Hunter said. "I don't think we're going to have to worry about 30 seconds running off the shot clock. It's more like 7 or 8 seconds.
"Still, nothing changes for us. We have to play good defense, rebound and take care of the ball."
Carroll played a big part in the Cougars' win over Oak Ridge, hitting the game winner.
There were a few players at Thursday's practice trying to duplicate Carroll's 50-foot shot he drained at the end of the first quarter against Oak Ridge.
Golden Valley's season was on the brink as the Cougars struggled against Oak Ridge's tall bodies in its 1-2-2 zone.
The Cougars trailed 40-32 heading into the fourth quarter after an uncharacteristic 17 turnovers in the first three quarters.
Golden Valley didn't turn the ball over in the final quarter as the Cougars outscored Oak Ridge 18-9, including Carroll's long 3-pointer with 50 seconds left that gave GV a 50-47 lead.
Hunter moved Carroll to the high post against the zone in the fourth quarter and that helped turned the game around. Carroll was able to make plays happen from inside the zone.
"He's crafty," Hunter said. "We were trying to do that more often during the game. Christian is one of our taller players and he's also our best passer.
"I had a lot of people (Thursday) telling me maybe we should practice working against a zone more. We had been working the last seven days. We knew what we were facing. We just weren't good against their pressure."
Tonight's opponent presents different challenges.
"They might make two passes and then shoot," Carroll said. "Coach told us we have to be on red alert any time our guy catches the ball. They'll shoot from anywhere.
"We have to keep them out of the paint. If they can beat us making jumpers, that's good for them."
Wednesday's win snapped a string of three straight first-round losses for Golden Valley. The Cougars are now just one win away from earning a trip to play in Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento.
"That would be great," Carroll said. "Coach (Aaron) Castleton is up on the picture on the banner that hangs in the gym and he talks about his memories getting all the way to Sleep Train Arena.
"We're not going to back down to anyone."
Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2462 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.