Steven Santa Ana was a seventh-grader playing at the Davidson College basketball camp when he displayed a glimpse of the player he could become.
Santa Ana played so well at the camp that Davidson head men’s basketball coach Bob McKillop sent Ardrey Kell basketball coach Michael Craft – who also worked as a Davidson assistant under McKillop for the 2005-06 season – a text saying “Steven Santa Ana is going to be a nice player for you at Ardrey Kell.”
“I remember I was playing up (an age group) at the Davidson camp, when one of the counselors came over and asked me if I was going to be a senior in high school the next year,” said Santa Ana, who didn’t know about the text from McKillop to Craft until a few years later. “When I told him I was just going into the eighth grade, he was shocked. The next thing I know (Davidson assistant) Matt McKillop came over and talked to me and told me how good I was playing and that I had a bright future.
“I had always wanted to play college basketball, but it was just a dream before then. At that moment, I realized that I if I worked really hard that playing college basketball could be a real thing for me.”
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Santa Ana, 18, has lived up to the billing. He made Ardrey Kell’s varsity team as a freshman and cracked the starting lineup midway through his first season with the Knights.
He has become one of the most accomplished players in Ardrey Kell basketball history, holding 10 of the 28 school records Craft has kept in his nine-year tenure since the school opened. Santa Ana is the all-time leader in points, rebounds, steals and three-pointers made with most of his senior season left to play.
Santa Ana, who stands 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, signed with Elon in November.
While Santa Ana has a career average of nearly 15 points and six rebounds per game, it’s just a small part of what defines him as a player.
“What defines Steven to me is his incredible desire to win,” Craft said. “In my 25 years of coaching, I’ve never had a player who played harder or was willing to do what it takes to win more than Steven. He will do whatever it takes, whether it’s diving for a loose ball, setting a screen, taking a charge or taking the big shot or getting a key rebound. He works on those things all the time, because he is just a basketball junkie.
“You don’t find many players like Steven Santa Ana. I always wonder, will there be another player like him? I sure hope so. But he will definitely be a hard act to follow.”
Santa Ana, a two-time All-Observer pick, averaged 10 points and five rebounds per contest as a freshman.
As a sophomore he excelled, scoring 18.4 points and averaging 6.5 boards a game and earning Southwestern 4A conference player of the year honors on an Ardrey Kell team that won 23 games.
Last season, Santa Ana averaged 17.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game, earning All-SoMeck 8 conference and all-district honors while leading his team to a school-record 24 wins, including a run to the 4A state quarterfinals.
Last year’s season ended in a 45-43 loss to Lake Norman, with the Wildcat’s KiShawn Pritchett making a buzzer-beating three-pointer to win. That play and the loss is something that has stuck with Santa Ana and his teammates.
“That whole game, I just played awful,” said Santa Ana, who had a season-low four points on 2-for-17 shooting in the game. “I’ve been thinking back to that game all offseason and working hard to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.”
Santa Ana wants to leave Ardrey Kell with the state championship that he promised Craft as a freshman.
The Knights (6-1 going into the game against West Mecklenburg on Dec. 12) have the experience and talent to do so with five senior starters in Santa Ana, point guard Seth Davis, shooting guard Collin Cooper, forward Rhyle Scott and center Josh Freund.
Two more seniors, Devin Cooper and Luke Lawson, are big contributors off the bench.
Santa Ana regularly sees double and triple teams, which gives his teammates more opportunities. He is averaging just 13 points per game so far this season, but he is finding different ways to contribute each night, averaging seven rebounds, three assists and nearly two steals per game. He also leads his team with five charges taken.
“We’ve got a lot guys this year that can make shots and score big baskets for us,” Santa Ana said. “My role might not be to score 20 points each night. If that means I need to take three charges or dive for loose balls or get 10 rebounds, I’m going to whatever it takes to win games. Every time I step on the court, my main goal is to get that win, because in the end that is all that really matters.”