Saul Avitia wasn’t happy with his junior season. In a limited role, the Atwater High guard averaged just close to five points per game last year.
After leading his team in scoring at the lower levels, Avitia just could never get comfortable in his role off the bench.
“I felt they saw me as a shooter and if my shot wasn’t falling, I wasn’t helping the team,” Avitia said. “The thing is, that was a tough season. I wanted to prove something, but I was afraid to make a mistake.”
Avitia has shown what he can do on the basketball court this season.
The senior has seen his scoring jump 12 points to 17.4 points per game this season. He’s averaging three 3-pointers per game, shooting 40 percent beyond the three-point line and 80 percent from the free throw line.
He’s become the Falcons’ top scoring threat and he did it with hard work.
“The biggest thing with him is the commitment,” said Atwater’s first-year coach Kanoa Smith. “That’s one thing about that kid, if the gym is open, he’s going to be there. I can think of maybe one or two workouts he’s missed. The summer before his junior year, him and Reggie (Ricks) were the only two guys who were consistently there over the summer four or five times a week. Sometimes it was only them two.
“Going into this year most people didn’t know anything about him. We knew he would sneak up on people.”
The personal success is great, but Avitia would enjoy it more if his team were winning. The Falcons are just 1-6 in Central California Conference play after Wednesday’s 61-39 loss to Pitman.
“It’s really hard. I want to be really happy for myself for the way I’m playing, but at the end of the day we have a (1-6) record,” Avitia said. “There’s just some games we should have won.”
Avitia took a back seat to Ricks last year and he was fine with it. He learned a lot from watching Ricks.
“Watching Reggie you could see his selfless attitude toward the game,” Avitia said. “He just had this confidence. At the beginning of the season, he was lights out. Toward the end of the season, I think he got a litte tired as teams made adjustments to him.
“I knew my role was going to expand this year. All the work I put in made me a much better player. That helped make my case for being the guy who would get more shots.”
Smith said there were days Avitia was in the gym shooting 200 or 300 shots in a day. He also got stronger, which helped him become more than just a shooter. He’s done a good job this season of attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line.
“You’re proud of a guy like that, who puts in the work,” Smith said. “He deserves the type of credit he’s getting. He deserves to have his name out there. Without a doubt the guy works the hardest so you want to get the ball in his hands. He deserves to be taking the big shots. Lately he’s been knocking them down.”
Avitia has shown a knack for making buzzer beaters.
He knocked one down at the end of the first quarter against Golden Valley last week. It was one of his four 3-pointers in the first quarter.
The shot everyone heard about came in the next game against Merced on January 17. With 2 seconds left on the clock, Atwater got the ball to Avitia, who dribbled once, spun and made a shot from just inside half court to beat Merced 52-49 at the buzzer.
“The coaches have so much confidence in me,” Avitia said. “It’s almost like they think I’m going to make it automatically.”
Avitia said he remembers as a kid shooting those type of shots out in front of his house with his brother. They would count down in their head before launching game-winning shots.
“I feel the pressure in those situations, but I don’t let it take over me,” Avitia said. “I enjoy the pressure.”
“That’s going to be a great memory for him,” Smith said. “Hitting a game-winner against Merced, especially in the new gym.”
Avitia said it got pretty crazy after he made the shot against Merced.
“My phone wouldn’t stop blowing up that night with all the notifications,” Avitia said. “The next day, I had random people at school congratulating me. People I barely talk to were coming up to me. I had a waiter at a restaurant tell me anything for you Mr. Basketball Superstar. There was no free meal, but I got great service.”