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The name of the game was fast-pitch softball at the high school level, but Jada Santiago’s numbers at the plate were indicative of an era that ended 20 years ago, when the North Carolina High School Athletic Association held its final state championships for slow pitch.
The North Johnston High graduate, who will continue her academic and athletic careers at UNC Wilmington, wreaked havoc on the ball from her catcher’s position.
Aside from being the bedrock of the Lady Panthers defensively behind the plate, Santiago started her career hitting .354 as a freshman before cresting the .400 mark in each of her next two seasons.
But as a senior — and having already signed with the Seahawks — Santiago’s plate awareness hit an even higher plane.
Her average blossomed to an obscene .612 and had her leading the conference in batting average, home runs with 14 and runs batted in with 62.
Those numbers quelled any potential arguments among 2-A Eastern Plains Conference head coaches before they could even begin, as Santiago was a unanimous selection for the league’s Player of the Year honor.
“I feel very honored and excited about getting this award especially since It was my senior year, but I wouldn’t have got It without the hard work from myself and my teammates,” Santiago said in a Thursday interview.
Santiago wasn’t the only threat in the lineup for the Lady Panthers, who finished with a 27-3 record, completed an unbeaten run through the EPC and reached the 2-A Eastern finals, losing in two games to state champion South Granville.
However, she became the table setter. At times, teams avoided pitching to her so much that head coach Chris Batten moved her to the leadoff spot to assure the Lady Panthers of a baserunner to open the first inning. Santiago reached base at a .713 clip.
But seeing fewer pitches to hit actually made her a better hitter.
“I had to be smarter in my at bats since a lot of pitchers tried to pitch around me, so I think this year I hit a lot better when I focused on hitting my pitch,” Santiago said.
Experience and the accumulation of at-bats turned Santiago into a destructive, driven offensive force in 2018.
“I have always worked hard but I believe it’s from experience and the more you play, the more at bats you get, the more mature of a hitter you become and I think It really showed this year,” she said.
While one big bat in particular may be leaving for the beach, the Lady Panthers should remain strong in 2018 with eight juniors set to return.
“I believe they will be very strong, but I believe the bond between the girls and their mentality is what will really take them far,” Santiago offered.
OTHER ALL-CONFERENCE PICKS
Santiago was joined by four of her junior teammates on the all-EPC squad, including Jordyn Scott, Lindsey Massengill, Amberlynn Pearce and Blayke Batten.
Scott hit .558 with 33 RBIs and 11 doubles, while Massengill hit at a .516 clip with 38 RBIs. Massengill led North Johnston, which hit .441 as a team, with 18 doubles.
Batten hit .495 and was second on the team in home runs with nine, RBIs with 43 and doubles with 13. Batten tacked on four triples.
Pearce was a .398 hitter with 26 RBIs and six homers. In the pitching circle, the right-hander was 19-3 with a 2.20 ERA. Pearce struck out 108 and walked 44 in working 117 2/3 of NJ’s 172 innings.
Farmville Central and Beddingfield, which tied for second in the regular season, each placed four players on the all-conference rolls.
The Lady Bruins were represented by a quartet of seniors in Brianna Hale, Savannah Barberio, Cassie Dail and Chloe Radford.
Radford hit .582 with 27 RBIs, five home runs and eight doubles, while Dail connected at a .444 clip to go along with nine RBIs, six doubles and a pair of homers. Barberio drove in 13 runs and hit .312.
Hale, in going 15-4 in the circle with a 2.92 ERA and 101 strikeouts, also hit .415 with a pair of homers and drove in 21 runs.
Kate Lancaster, Sydney Wade, Abby Foster and Gracen Terrell rounded out the all-conference picks for the Lady Jaguars.
Fourth-place SouthWest Edgecombe received two selections in senior Megan Deal and sophomore Taylor Hobgood.
Deal was 6-6 in the circle with a 3.93 ERA and 114 strikeouts. The owner of a team-leading .471 average at the plate, Deal orchestrated eight complete games for the Lady Cougars.
Hobgood hit .424 and led SouthWest in most power departments, accounting for 29 RBIs, six doubles and three triples.
Fifth-place Nash Central populated the all-conference team with Cana Shrock and Addie Jones, while North Pitt was represented by Abby Culler.