Justin Pahl has been playing basketball as long as he can remember.
He said when he was in preschool he'd even play on a mini-hoop around the house.
Now in his senior year at East Ridge High School, Pahl is filling a void left by eight of his teammates who graduated last spring, all while trying to make a decision on what college to attend next fall and leading the Raptors on and off the court as team captain.
Pahl said he understands he's in a big moment in his life.
"It's a lot of pressure," Pahl said. "I have a lot of shoes to fill and I know everyone expects a lot out of me. I just try to give it my all and build my teammates up."
Even as a freshman, Pahl played some varsity basketball at Mahtomedi High School, then started for the Zephyrs as a sophomore. After his family moved to Woodbury he started every game for East Ridge, leading the team in scoring last season. With key players Adam Schwartz, John Hietpas, Jake Coquyt, Dillion Johnson and Dayo Idowu graduating in 2011, Pahl said he knew he needed to step it up this year.
"I've always been playing against older guys, but this summer I was thinking that I'm one of the older guys now and I'm the one who has to be a leader," Pahl said. "I used to look up to other players, but now the call is coming from me. It's a huge step."
Since being unanimously voted as team captain, Pahl - a shooting guard - is averaging 24.5 points a game - tops of any player in the Suburban East Conference and near the top 10 in the state. This season, Pahl has gone over 20 points in five of East Ridge's six games, scoring a season-high of 33 points in a loss to St. Louis Park.
"He's quite a player. He's an important part of our program and there is a reason why," East Ridge head coach Paul Virgin said.
Primarily known for his outside shooting - his range goes beyond the NBA 3-point line - Pahl, 6'4," said he's trying to expand his game this season to play more like Kevin Durant, the do-everything forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"I've always been able to shoot, I could hit 3's since the sixth grade. But, I've also always been in the gym practicing my whole life," Pahl said. "This year I'm trying to bring the whole game into it. If my 3's aren't working then I have to get to the free-throw line. I just need to mix it up and find new ways to put the ball in the hoop."
On the year, Pahl is shooting 50 percent from behind the 3-point line, going 20-for-40, and is shooting 52.4 percent overall from the field. He's also 39-for-48 from the free-throw line.
"There's no doubt about it, he's an awesome shooter," Virgin said. "Looking at his shot chart is pretty amazing. He can shoot from distance, but he can go inside and score. He plays our most minutes and he can dish the ball too. We're also hoping he can help us out a little more on the boards and strengthen his game that way."
Virgin said Pahl's game reminds him of recent Forest Lake guard Phil Hegseth, BYU star Jimmer Fredette and former Golden Gopher Blake Hoffarber.
"Like those guys, he can shoot and make plays driving to the hole," Virgin said. "He's a very good spot-up shooter. We try to get some inside-out touches for him so he can get open looks, he's very accurate from that distance."
With Pahl undecided on what school he'll attend after East Ridge, college scouts have been to every Raptors game this season. He's currently being recruited by top Div. III college programs in the Midwest, but could also play Div. II or maybe even Div. I basketball next year.
"I don't really think about it too much," Pahl said. "Every game is a clean slate. I don't try to think about what coaches are here to watch me. I just do what I can to do my best."
A high-end student as well, Pahl is in physics and advanced placement calculus at East Ridge. He said he isn't certain what field he'll study in school, but believes it will be in math or science.
Virgin said he doesn't think it fazes Pahl to have the spotlight on him each time he takes the court.
"He's got a great head on his shoulders," Virgin said. "He's a fantastic student, in AP classes, and his SAT and ACT scores are very good. He's got a good grasp on that stuff."
Of what college Pahl will pick, Virgin said it's a matter of what will be "the right fit for Justin."
"He can fill a lot of roles for teams - whether it's DI, DII or DIII," he said. "I think it's really going to be up to Justin and what's going to be the best fit for him and what he wants to do the next four years of his life. There's different commitment needed for different programs and different levels."
For now though, Pahl is focused on his youthful squad at East Ridge and getting the Raptors to be the best team it can be. Six games in, East Ridge is 4-2 overall and 1-0 in the conference.
"I think we're doing pretty well. We're just going to grow everyday as a team, because we're so young," Pahl said. "By the time February rolls around we'll be in good shape. I can't complain about anything right now."