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Versatile Santos makes Wheeler go

UNION TOWNSHIP -- Asking Emma Santos what position she plays on the volleyball court can be a tricky question.

At the same time, it could be considered an easy question given that the Wheeler senior can and has played just about all of them.

"This is my 25th year coaching and I don't know if I've ever had a kid who can do as many things as she does, especially being no bigger than she is," Bearcats coach TR Harlan said of the 5-foot-4 dynamo. "It would be different if it was a 5-11 kid out there doing all that. At her size, it's like having the Energizer Bunny. She gets to every ball. She's what makes us go. She makes everybody else play really hard because of the effort she puts out on the court. She's one of those once-in-a-lifetime players from that standpoint. That's why I keep moving her around. Well, I need this, let's have Emma try it. Now I need this, let's have Emma try it."

Harlan believes Santos would be the best Libero in Northwest Indiana, if she was playing the position.

"She's that talented," he said.

Santos was in fourth grade when she followed her sister into the sport, thinking it looked fun. Like a fair number of kids, particularly smaller ones, early in their careers, she bounced around on the court, though setting seemed to be her path. Her freshman year, Wheeler had just one setter, so that's where she started in high school. Santos was moved to Libero about halfway through her sophomore season and was training to do the same last year, Harlan's first with the Bearcats, when the team's setter came down with mononucleosis. She went back to Libero later, but was tracking to fill the setter void again this season. Then two players, a Libero and a hitter were sidelined by COVID-19 exposure, so, yep, you guessed it, she went back to setter, only this time it came with a bonus.

"When we were doing a 6-2, I was setting and outside hitting, right side," Santos said. "When we did a 5-1, I played right side the whole time in the front row."

Like a lineman getting the chance to run or catch the football, Santos was all on board with the move.

"Everybody wants to be a hitter," Harlan said. "I kind of made the change anticipating (the others) coming back. It gives us our best chance, so let's try this first. We didn't even practice. The day before a game, I said, you want to hit outside tomorrow? Well, yeah. She had like seven kills; all right, that a girl, good job. There are form things we need to work on because she's never done it before, but she enjoys it, the kids love it. The other day, I told her I think we're going to move you off to the left, what do you think about hitting? She said, it would be dream. There ya go, kid, the job is yours."

Playing front row is the toughest, simply because the height disadvantage, but don't, pardon the bad pun, sell Santos short.

"I'm going against all the outside hitters, who are usually the taller ones," she said. "It's weird standing at the net and thinking, I'm probably at this girl's shoulder, but it's actually really fun to me to get up and block them. It's a challenge. It's mainly timing. When they hit, maybe what I do is jump a little earlier or don't jump right away. I need to contact the ball when it's coming down. You've just got to get used to it. The thing I've learned over the years in volleyball, it's a new beginning every point. It's like a clean slate. The last point doesn't affect you at all. It doesn't matter. The next point, you can get a perfect dig, a perfect set."

Emma Santos is the catalyst for a Wheeler volleyball team that leads the state in digs. The versatile 5-foot-4 senior plays all over the court for the Bearcats.

OK, so what does like best?

"I really like digging the ball. Getting the ball up for a teammate is exciting," Santos said. "Setting is awesome because you get to help your hitters. Seeing them put the ball down is the best feeling. Hitting's been fun because it's something I don't usually get to do. It's like a new thing."

As important as her versatility is, Santos' defense is probably her most vital contribution to an undersized team that has to succeed on perseverance.

"We get a lot of digs because we touch a lot of balls, but a lot of those would end up hitting the ground after we pass them because we don't pass great," Harlan said. "Emma gets to every ball and Haley (Weiland) will jump and hit everything so now it's a dig when most of the time it would've gone off an arm and into the bleachers. When I took over here, we weren't blessed with any size so we have to dig every ball. We need the ball to go over the net as many times as possible. They've adopted into that. That's what we have to be and they know until some 6-footer moves in."

Wheeler went into the weekend leading the state in digs.

"Our assistant coach (Jessica Peterson) does a great job with the back row kids. She played for me for four years at Chesterton," Harlan said. "What it's done is turned us into robots. In high school volleyball, most people hit the ball in the same spots. Everybody's always in the right spot, now we just have to learn to play from that position. It works out for us."

Santos, in particular, takes pride in the statistic.

"I think it speaks a lot about our team," she said. "We don't give up on the points. A lot of it is from TR teaching us to be in the right spot. It's like second nature for us to be in our spot. After the ball is hit, we go for it. We don't worry, oh, is this my ball? Our mentality is to try our hardest to get a touch on it, to keep the ball up every time, and see what happens."

Clearly, Santos is the catalyst for it. As odd as it sounds, Harlan almost wishes sometimes that she wouldn't play so hard.

"She has to start yelling help," he said. "Lots of our kids are sophomores. She's the nicest kid. Emma will be like, it's OK, you'll get the next one. She always positive. She's a firm believer, wherever that second ball is, I'm going to get it. But we can't have her diving all over the court. Let someone else step in and set it back to you for you to hit it. If I'm one of the kids in the back row, how can I just stand there and let the ball drop when Emma just dove into the bleachers? It's infectious. It's an old cliche, but I would take 10 of her on my team every time."

A 4.2/4.3 student taking classes in Calculus 2, Advance Placement Government and Advanced Placement Chemistry, Santos is in National Honor Society. She wants to go to a big college like Purdue and study Engineering, but another part of her can't imagine not playing volleyball, having been in the sport so long. Given the additional circumstances that have made this season unlike any other, Santos is appreciating it as much as she can.

"I'm not taking any moments for granted, the days, the bus rides, everything in between, the games," said Santos, who is happy to be attending classes in person. "When the score gets close to 25, I'm like, I don't want to stop playing. I'm savoring every point. I didn't know how long the season was going to be, then when we lost two of our own girls, it was, wow, this is real. Every single day, we don't know what's going to happen. We just need to buckle down, worry day by day, and be grateful that we're here."

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