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Fantastic Frosh

Tiare Jennings, Pitman High School Basketball player.
Tiare Jennings, Pitman High School Basketball player.

Juliana Santos was the star on California's top-ranked small-school softball team the last two seasons, dazzling Orestimba High fans with her glove and her bat.

Tiare Jennings was the most-feared hitter in the Central California Conference the last two seasons, slugging it all over the park while playing at Pitman High.

Being able to overpower pitchers in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, both players realized, was one thing. Duplicating their performances for prominent Division I college programs, though, that would be a much more difficult task.

Or would it? With their first college season coming to a close, Santos and Jennings have made a seamless leap to the next level by smacking around some of the nation's top pitchers.

"Making this transition to the college level was pretty easy," said Jennings, who plays second base and bats No. 3 for New Mexico State University. "I try to get on every time and get mad when I don't. I try not to show frustration anymore." There are few opportunities for frustration, considering Jennings already has set four single-season hitting records for the Lobos and is on pace to set two more.

While Jennings is tearing up the Western Athletic Conference, Santos is setting her own standard at Louisiana State University in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference -- her Tigers are one of five SEC teams are ranked among the top 25.

"I wasn't at all scared coming into this atmosphere," said Santos, who plays shortstop and bats third for the nation's 21st-ranked team. "I came in with a lot of confidence and that led me to being named the freshman team captain." Santos says the key now is to maintain her confidence, in good times and bad. There are have been few bad times. She leads the team in runs, is second in doubles, home runs and stolen bases, and is third in hits, RBI and slugging percentage.

"I still get overwhelmed more than I should, being out on that field in front of a big crowd in a big game, but that's also a positive because of the energy it provides," said Santos, who homered in Saturday's 8-0 win over South Carolina.

Making the transition from the valley's dusty high school fields to the pristine stadiums that New Mexico and LSU call home was just one challenge, though.

Santos and Jennings also had to adjust to the rigors of college academics, the time commitment that softball requires and -- for the first time -- living without a parent at arm's reach to help make some of life's most important decisions.

"There is no time for us to fool around, because when you travel it gets harder to keep your grades," said Jennings, noting the Lobos are in Hawaii this weekend. "Our team has to sit in the front of our classes. Our coaches do grade checks, too." Santos has had a similar challenge. Academics came fairly easy during high school, she said, but college courses have been challenging.

"The academics are the hardest part, more difficult than the softball and adjusting to the social life," Santos said. "You're studying a couple hours a day for each class if you really want to stay on top of everything. Time management is a priority." While Santos was one of the nation's top recruits and is playing in athletic-crazed Baton Rouge, a city festooned in the Tigers' purple and gold, Jennings' was a second-tier recruit and her arrival in Las Cruces was less heralded.

That quickly changed, though, when she went 2-for-2, scored a run and drove in a run in the season-opening 9-1 win over Colorado State. When she homered in the Lobos' third and fourth games of the season -- she since has hit 13 more, and holds the school record with 15 for the season -- fans got to know her on a first-name basis.

"My social life is great," said Jennings, whose other school records are for RBIs (54), runs scored (48) and total bases (112). "You go around town and people know you because you're playing for the college. You have a lot of kids (in town) who look up to you. We do a lot of community service and it helps get fans to our games." Jennings' .406 batting average is second on the team -- the single-season record is .399, so there's a possibility for another record -- and is one reason the Lobos are second in the nation with a .346 team batting average.

"Travel ball prepared me a lot," said Jennings, who also credits the support of her parents, Tasse and Andy Jennings, and her three siblings. "I have always played softball each summer. Each week we would go to a tournament or games." Jennings has been with the California Grapettes since she was 12, and spent her summers playing with -- and against -- some of the nation's top prep players.

"Some of the girls I'm playing against, I either played them or was on the same team for travel ball," Jennings said. "College ball has a lot more superstars on the team. The pitchers have more movement than high school or travel ball." Santos was one of the LSU's coveted recruits. The Tigers targeted her from the beginning and stayed on top of her until the letter of intent was signed, and continued to stay in contact afterward.

"LSU was looking for a middle infielder," said Santos, The Bee's co-Player of the Year last spring. "They didn't tell me that shortstop was mine, but they told me it was an open position that I could fight for. I was ready to fight for that spot." Her first realization after arriving in Baton Rouge, aside from experiencing the sort of humidity that is rare in the valley, was the increased intensity of college softball.

"Everything here is faster, everything is more intense," said Santos, whose parents are Ralph and Yvette Santos. "Pitchers are better, hitters are better, runners are faster. Take everything you know, and then speed it up. That's college softball." Her ability to adapt was helped by having a close friend on the team, sophomore Ashley Applegate from Beyer High played on Santos' travel team. Applegate was on the SEC Freshman Academic Honor Roll last spring, and is hitting .319 this year.

"It's a completely different atmosphere, different than high school and travel ball," Santos said. "Then you add in that it's the SEC, where sports are just crazy, and it's the sort of intensity that I had never experience before. I love it, though."