TAMPA — There was a time when University of Tampa senior shortstop Kevin Santa wondered if he would ever be able to effectively play baseball again.
After suffering a season-ending broken left wrist in the 26th game of 2016 while awkwardly sliding into home, Santa's offseason was filled with doubts and frustration.
"It was like I forgot how to do things," Santa said. "Nothing felt right. I was tentative. I was wondering if the surgery actually worked. I did not feel right."
Then this season started.
Santa, perhaps making up for lost time, has paced the Spartans at the plate (.435 through 20 games) and in the field. He's reasserting himself as a top prospect for the amateur draft, which doesn't surprise UT coach Joe Urso.
"I think Kevin will be a really good professional player," Urso said. "It was such a big blow to lose him last year, even though we still won our conference. But not having him was the difference in us not making that World Series run we're used to.
"He's off to a great start. And it's great to see because he can really be dominant. All the hesitation he had in the offseason — hey, we were a little worried, too — that's out the window."
At the time of last season's injury, when he led the Spartans in batting (.441), Santa said he prayed it was just a sprained wrist. When the bad news came, after wearing a splint then undergoing surgery where a steadying screw was placed into the bone, Santa said he was depressed. But the time off taught him how to bounce back while also providing motivation.
"I realize now how much I missed it," Santa said. "It's true what they say. You don't know what you had until you lose it."
While growing up in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico — a small town just outside of San Juan — Santa said he dreamed of playing college baseball and getting an opportunity to be drafted. During a tournament, he was noticed by a scout, who inquired about his prospects.
Santa had nothing.
So the scout referred him to Chipola College, a tradition-rich two-year school in Florida's Panhandle.
The learning curve was steep.
"I knew nothing about it," Santa said. "I thought it would be a big city with skyscrapers. There was a McDonald's, a Waffle House and a Wendy's. Then a lot of trees. And I was like, 'I'm going to be here for two years?'
"There wasn't anything to distract you from baseball. If you're bored, maybe you go to the (batting) cages or maybe you work out."
Maybe that wasn't a bad thing. Santa focused on his craft. That followed perhaps a more important transition — learning to speak English.
Santa said he learned by listening to … country music.
"I'm not kidding," Santa said. "I could understand that more than any other kind of music. I'd hear a word, write it down, then look up the definition.
"It was rough in the beginning. I couldn't understand people. They were speaking too fast. I don't think I really understood anything my coach said until the end of my freshman year. I struggled to have a conversation."
Baseball was Santa's universal language.
He became a standout at Chipola, drawing the attention of UT, a Division II powerhouse. Santa quickly fit in. Sometimes, he'll still use the wrong word, but he'll laugh along with teammates over the mangled communication.
He laughs especially hard at opposing fans who inevitably react to his introduction.
Now batting for the Spartans … Kevin Santa.
"I have heard it all," he said. "They call me Santa Claus, Santa Maria, Santa Baby. I just smile. It's not really a common last name.
"But, yes, just so everyone knows, I have always believed in Santa Claus. I used to wait for him on Christmas Eve. He brings presents. That Santa name usually makes people happy, so I like it."
Urso might be happiest of all.
"Certain guys just have that 'it' factor and when the lights turn on, Kevin is such a gamer," Urso said. "He continues to amaze me with what he's able to do.
"It's gratifying to see him make it all the way back. I know he's giving it his all. He's a senior. He had most of a year taken away by injury. Every little thing matters to him, so I have a feeling he's going to put on quite a show."