Andover senior Erik Santa loves sports and the Anoka-Hennepin Mustangs PI (physical impairment) team has given him an outlet to share his passion for the last the last six years.
Santa has been a consistent teammate on the floor depending on the season; fall is soccer, winter is floor hockey (his favorite to play while watching baseball or hockey is his favorite to watch) and spring is softball.
He was recently recognized for his play on the softball field as the 2013 Tony Labahn Outstanding Player Award PI, a first for the Anoka-Hennepin program.
Mustangs softball coach Pete Kutches nominated Santa, who has pitched for the squad since seventh grade and has the team 6-2 with one game left before the state tournament at Coon Rapids High School May 31 and June 1.
“I guess what sticks out for me is the kind of kid he is,” Kutches said about Santa.
He helped the squad add some players after making an impact on them during an after-school informational pizza party.
“A couple of kids never forgot Erik and how he came by and talked to them about the team,” Kutches said.
“A couple of them said, ‘It was the coolest thing in the world.’ He didn’t judge them, just thanked them for coming and he understands how much [the Mustangs] have helped him.”
Kutches was impressed by how smart of a seventh-grader Santa was when he joined the team. “He knew the game,” Kutches said. “As you get older and mature you understand how the game works, but he knew from the start.
“Erik’s like a quarterback out there shifting people over and from a coaching standpoint that is very nice. We’re really lucky to have him. He knows where to go with the ball in every situation.”
Doing the little things well consistently has really helped Santa and the Mustangs win.
“Erik gets three strikes on somebody and he knows when not to throw them a good pitch [to hit],” Kutches said. “He’s very solid batting as well. He hits the ball all over the field. Erik’s a righty so he can bring it to right field and he’ll hit behind the runners and do the things you’d want any other batter to do.”
Kutches hopes that skill and determination has rubbed off on the younger Mustangs.
“With the younger kids, it’s his work ethic and desire to get better as a seventh-grader or senior,” Kutches said. “He’s instilled good values to show the younger kids how it’s done and that’s huge for them to see. He loves the game and loves to compete.”
Santa’s career totals include 69 strikeouts, 12 walks and an ERA of 6.44 over 255 innings. His batting stats are equally impressive collecting 91 hits, 59 RBI, 20 runs and a .626 batting average.
Santa was diagnosed with a genetic disease called neurofibromatosis (NF1) as a six-year-old. One complication are tumors that grow on nerves throughout the body. He has a tumor that extends from his thigh into his abdomen and spine.
As a result, Santa and his parents, Wes and Jackie, have traveled to the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Md., for the last 12 years for help.
“He doesn’t have any pain right now,” Jackie said.
Santa has gone through seven clinical drug trials to stop or shrink the size of the tumor, she said.
In addition to being a part of the Mustangs, Santa is a member of the National Honor Society and served on the youth advisory council at Children’s Hospital and Clinics until his junior year of high school.
He continues to volunteer with different organizations including the Children’s Tumor Foundation and other events to help raise money for research and create awareness.
“He’s been through a lot and missed a lot of school, but he’s always been able to maintain his grades,” Jackie said.
The Mustangs have played a huge role as an outlet for Erik, she said. “The Mustangs really saved him in many aspects from the friendships and mentoring that goes on – he’s really gained a lot from it,” Jackie said. “I think it’s helped him be successful. He’s developed the determination to keep trying.”
Santa echoed his mother’s thoughts on what the Mustangs have meant and how that is coming to a close. “It’s really sad because it has been my outlet for stress and I’ve really enjoyed playing because I’m a huge sports fan,” he said.
Santa will graduate from Andover High School with highest honors and plans on attending the University of St. Thomas in the fall, possibly working toward a degree in mathematics.
The 2013 Tony Labahn Outstanding Player Award PI was started in 2002 to honor Labahn, who was a longtime adapted athletics advocate, coach, referee and administrator, and is presented by the Minnesota Adapted Athletics Association.
Kutches received the winning letter and personally delivered the news to Santa’s house.
“It was a big surprise,” Santa said. “I had no idea other than he wanted to come by to share some news.”
Santa has received all-conference honors before but nothing on the state-level, while the team has placed third at state previously.
Both of the team’s regular season losses came against rival Robbinsdale/Hopkins/Mound Westonka. Santa hopes that changes that if they meet at state.
The biggest win of the season, so far, was a 16-0 win against Mounds View Adapted May 15. Santa pitched the complete game shutout and helped the cause with a few hits.
When asked if he prefers the shutout or a walk-off hit, the response was well thought-out. “Both are really good,” Santa said. “I like pitching and defense, especially when you can shut a team down like Mounds View but coming up with a big hit feels good, too.”