Varsity Baseball | April 22, 2022

Lake Central’s Matt Santana is back behind the dish and ready to win

nwitimes.com – David P. Funk

The family decided to stop for a walk through campus. The gate for the baseball field was open so they snuck onto the diamond. It was a big moment that made a lasting impression.

A couple years later, a friend who knows Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello reached out to let the Volunteers skipper know about the talented catcher in the TriTown. Vitello watched Santana for a year or two and then offered a scholarship on October 14, 2020. Santana remembers the date. He committed before he hung up.

“It’s my dream school. I knew right then and there that that’s what I wanted,” he said. “Tennessee is where I want to be.”

When a player commits to an SEC program, it makes noise. So Santana came to Indians coach Mike Swartzentruber as a known commodity.

Swartzentruber said Santana hasn’t disappointed. He handles both the bat and the pitching staff well. He can use the stick to do what the situation calls for, be it moving a runner over or bunting or lining one into the gap.

“He’s strong. He’s got a good idea of what he wants to do at the plate. He’s just a very good high school hitter and I hope, when the time comes, it translates to the next level for him,” Swartzentruber said. “We think we have a good baseball program but when he goes to Tennessee, we’re talking about a whole different level. We’re talking about the No. 1 or 2 team in the country, in the SEC, which has the best players in the country. I’m sure there’s going to be a learning curve but he’s a smart kid and I think he understands the game and I think he’ll work for it.”

Santana bats second for Lake Central. He hit leadoff in two games against South Bend Adams last weekend but only to fill a temporary hole in a potent Indians lineup.

Eight Lake Central players are batting .417 or better against one of the toughest early schedules in the state. Santana tops that list at .591. He also hit a couple home runs, drove in 16 RBIs, scored 15 runs and stole two bases. He carries a 1.772 OPS and Lake Central is off to a 7-2 start.

“I’m seeing the ball great right now and my confidence is through the roof,” he said. “Whenever I go up to the plate, I just want to crush the ball.”

The hot start is even more satisfying for Santana because he’s fully healthy. He injured his throwing shoulder two years ago. Subbing for a travel team who needed a catcher in a game at Andrean, he tore his labrum sliding back into first base on a pick off attempt. He had surgery in September of 2020.

Santana was able to hit off of a tee in December 2020 and started throwing again in January 2021. He still isn’t quite 100 percent throwing the ball and sometimes feels it on a cold day.

As a result, Santana didn’t catch at all last season and was relegated to the designated hitter role. He admits the injury affected him a little as a hitter, too. He hit .288 with 12 RBIs as a sophomore.

“It was a grind, definitely. There were a lot of mental setbacks. I kind of just let it loose now. Over time, it’ll just become stronger,” Santana said.

Lake Central thought it had a chance to make a run during Santana’s freshman year but COVID-19 canceled those plans. Last season, the Indians had another promising season derailed by a 3-2 loss to Munster in the sectional championship.

The rival Mustangs beat the Indians during the regular season, too. Both games ended in walk-off fashion. Santana and Swartzentruber each said that was a different Lake Central team, though. This one spent time fostering chemistry with offseason team-building events. It’s got big goals, like going undefeated in the Duneland Athletic Conference.

“We’re coming for Munster. We’ve definitely got a chip on our shoulder this year and we’re ready to compete,” Santana said. “The long-term goals are definitely a state championship and all the things that go with that, regional, sectional, semistate. If we focus on state, those will all come.”

ST. JOHN — Matt Santana was 12 years old when his family was traveling after a baseball tournament near the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The Lake Central junior grew up watching the Volunteers football team and loved the orange and white.

The family decided to stop for a walk through campus. The gate for the baseball field was open so they snuck onto the diamond. It was a big moment that made a lasting impression.

A couple years later, a friend who knows Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello reached out to let the Volunteers skipper know about the talented catcher in the TriTown. Vitello watched Santana for a year or two and then offered a scholarship on October 14, 2020. Santana remembers the date. He committed before he hung up.

“It’s my dream school. I knew right then and there that that’s what I wanted,” he said. “Tennessee is where I want to be.”

When a player commits to an SEC program, it makes noise. So Santana came to Indians coach Mike Swartzentruber as a known commodity.

Swartzentruber said Santana hasn’t disappointed. He handles both the bat and the pitching staff well. He can use the stick to do what the situation calls for, be it moving a runner over or bunting or lining one into the gap.

“He’s strong. He’s got a good idea of what he wants to do at the plate. He’s just a very good high school hitter and I hope, when the time comes, it translates to the next level for him,” Swartzentruber said. “We think we have a good baseball program but when he goes to Tennessee, we’re talking about a whole different level. We’re talking about the No. 1 or 2 team in the country, in the SEC, which has the best players in the country. I’m sure there’s going to be a learning curve but he’s a smart kid and I think he understands the game and I think he’ll work for it.”

Santana bats second for Lake Central. He hit leadoff in two games against South Bend Adams last weekend but only to fill a temporary hole in a potent Indians lineup.

Eight Lake Central players are batting .417 or better against one of the toughest early schedules in the state. Santana tops that list at .591. He also hit a couple home runs, drove in 16 RBIs, scored 15 runs and stole two bases. He carries a 1.772 OPS and Lake Central is off to a 7-2 start.

“I’m seeing the ball great right now and my confidence is through the roof,” he said. “Whenever I go up to the plate, I just want to crush the ball.”

The hot start is even more satisfying for Santana because he’s fully healthy. He injured his throwing shoulder two years ago. Subbing for a travel team who needed a catcher in a game at Andrean, he tore his labrum sliding back into first base on a pick off attempt. He had surgery in September of 2020.

Santana was able to hit off of a tee in December 2020 and started throwing again in January 2021. He still isn’t quite 100 percent throwing the ball and sometimes feels it on a cold day.

As a result, Santana didn’t catch at all last season and was relegated to the designated hitter role. He admits the injury affected him a little as a hitter, too. He hit .288 with 12 RBIs as a sophomore.

“It was a grind, definitely. There were a lot of mental setbacks. I kind of just let it loose now. Over time, it’ll just become stronger,” Santana said.

Lake Central thought it had a chance to make a run during Santana’s freshman year but COVID-19 canceled those plans. Last season, the Indians had another promising season derailed by a 3-2 loss to Munster in the sectional championship.

The rival Mustangs beat the Indians during the regular season, too. Both games ended in walk-off fashion. Santana and Swartzentruber each said that was a different Lake Central team, though. This one spent time fostering chemistry with offseason team-building events. It’s got big goals, like going undefeated in the Duneland Athletic Conference.

“We’re coming for Munster. We’ve definitely got a chip on our shoulder this year and we’re ready to compete,” Santana said. “The long-term goals are definitely a state championship and all the things that go with that, regional, sectional, semistate. If we focus on state, those will all come.”

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