By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA – USF freshman second baseman Monica Santos has heard all the stereotypes before.
You’re too small.
There’s no way you can hit it out of the infield.
You’re too short.
The second baseman, listed at 4 feet, 10 inches in your game programs, has stood tall despite the chatter throughout her entire softball career and has helped USF reach the place every college team in the nation sets its sights on – the NCAA Tournament.
The Bulls get started at the NCAA Gainesville Regional 3:30 p.m. Friday against Georgia Southern and some fans not familiar with Santos might do a double-take when she steps to the plate. Opposing pitchers better watch out, too, because the powerful righty has nine extra-base hits this season including four home runs.
“It’s a cool feeling because I don’t think a lot of people expect a 4-foot-10 player to drive the ball out of the park,” Santos said. “Honestly I didn’t think I’d have this many home runs, maybe one if I got lucky but it’s nice.”
'A Bull Since Birth'
Ask Ken Eriksen about recruiting Santos and he’ll tell you she’s been a Bull since birth.
USF’s head coach is well known for his ability to make people laugh with well-timed jokes but he really wasn’t kidding on this occasion.
“I’ve got pictures of her here at the field when she was 5, 6 years old hitting all the time. Her dad (Manny) was unbelievably generous with his time for her,” Eriksen said.
Eriksen also is quick to point out that Santos hit a home run in her first game at USF Softball Stadium. Santos was a youth player on an 18-and-under travel team at the time.
“She’s got dynamite in her hands,” Eriksen said.
Santos’ skills on the field have taken her quite a long way since she started playing the game at age 3. The Tampa native became a three-year captain at Wharton High School and gained softball experience on the world stage as a member of Puerto Rico’s national teams. Santos earned bronze medals at the 2009 and 2011 Youth World Cup and the 2010 Junior Pan American Games. She also was on the 2012 team that qualified for the World Cup and the Pan-Am Games.
“This is a kid that’s been in the big ballgame all of her life. This is a kid that’s been challenged,” Eriksen said. “She’ll hear the whispers or the rumors, ‘Oh, too small. She’ll never be able to play at a high level,’ this and that. She put that to rest right away.”
A large national audience tuning into the Big East Championship game last Saturday found out what Santos is all about when the Bulls captured their first-ever Big East Tournament title by defeating top-seeded Notre Dame, 1-0, in 10 innings at USF Softball Stadium.
The game was scoreless until the top of the 10th inning when USF, the “away” team, produced all the offense it would need. Leadoff batter Lee Ann Spivey, also a freshman, made her way to second on a throwing error and guess who steps to the plate with one out.
Santos became one of only two players in the entire game with two hits when she ripped a single to left field that put runners on second and third. Junior Ashli Goff (5-foot-3) followed with an RBI single and the rest, well, is conference history.
“I’ve dreamt about this since I could remember. I was 6 years old dreaming about being a Bull,” Santos said. “It’s nice to see that everything is falling into place and I’m living the dream but I don’t take it for granted. You still have to work hard day in and day out.”
Santos gained a new following across the country with her Big East Championship performance and she found out about a new fan the day of the big win.
An aspiring young softball player from New Jersey named Kayla Posten told her father, Wayne, “There I am, pop,” when she saw Santos on TV. Kayla is a straight-A student that finds fun on the field as a 4-foot-9 second baseman/outfielder on a 12-and-under team.
Wayne constantly told Kayla, also a righty, she must bat left-handed or switch positions because she’s “too small.” Being the supportive father that he is, Wayne e-mailed the USF coaching staff last Saturday asking if Santos could possibly find the time to give Kayla some encouraging words of advice.
Wayne said his daughter has been “ear-to-ear smiles” since Santos replied with a lengthy email titled “Words for Kayla” that includes tons of useful information about how to overcome obstacles, one student-athlete to another.
“For Monica to reply back shows the caliber of person she is, and her words have given my daughter hope that she too can overcome stereotypes and realize her dreams of playing college softball if you work hard on the field and in the classroom,” Wayne said.
Santos was excited about the email exchange and honored to help out her new fan.
“It’s kind of ironic because nobody ever looks up to me. They always look down,” Santos said with a laugh. “It was really nice and it made me realize what kind of impact I can have on somebody by just playing the game of softball and doing what I love to do.”
A Team Full of ‘Heart’
Fans watching Santos take the field in the NCAA Tournament might notice something else quite special about the Bulls. USF has a total of eight players 5-feet-5 or shorter on its roster including senior third baseman Kenshyra Jackson, who ranks second on the team with 10 homers and 36 RBIs.
Eriksen said he didn’t care one bit about how tall Santos and Jackson were when he recruited them and won’t look past young prospects like USF’s surprising sluggers in the future.
“Size has nothing to do with ability to play this game,” Eriksen said. “A lot of coaches will recruit strictly on size. The size of the heart to me is more than the size of the body.”
Watch Santos and USF in Action on Friday
USF’s game against Georgia Southern and all other Gainesville Regional contests can be seen on GatorVision, the University of Florida’s video site free of charge. In addition, fans will be able to listen to Jim Louk call all of USF’s games via BullsCast and the iBulls Mobile App.