The Longhorns have a new cowpoke in charge of the corral, and less than two weeks before the start of school, he’s not cracking the whip, but is ready to lead this herd he believes in, to the front.
Jason Santo, 42, is taking over as Basalt High School’s Athletic Director. He succeeds Sean Nunan, who resigned at the end of the 2018-19 academic year, after three years with the school.
Santo says he’ll also teach a couple of classes, probably in physical education or health. He served his last school, the 2,000 student Geneva High School west of Chicago, for eight years, the last three as assistant athletic director for winter sports. Santo also taught print and television journalism, as he was a former TV sports reporter. He enjoyed working with youngsters on some local projects, and made the move into education.
At GHS, he oversaw boys and girls basketball, wrestling, dance, cheerleading, bowling and more. Girls’ hoops won two of the last three Illinois state championships, the boys made the quarterfinals last spring, and dance was always competitive statewide and nationally, winning four straight state titles.
How does it prepare him for Basalt? Santo says, “It gave me a great opportunity to learn. My boss was amazing, always there to lend an ear, to give me guidance on what I’d need to do as AD. When this job opened up, it was the opportunity. We thought we’d stay in Illinois longer, but things fell into place, making it clear our family decision was the right one. We look at this opportunity as the best for both of us.”
His wife Stephanie will work in the Roaring Fork district too, as a social worker at Basalt Middle School, and helping out at Basalt Elementary School. The Santos’ have three young children, girls aged 1 and 10, and a 5-year-old son.
Falling into place also meant no house-hunting required. Jason’s folks have owned a home in Basalt for years, and he and the family have moved right in. The connection goes back decades. When he was about 7 years old back in Michigan, his folks started skiing Aspen. The Valley made an impact. He adds it’ll be interesting to finally spend an entire winter here.
Santo has only been on hand a couple of weeks, but he’s impressed in early encounters with the coaching staff because he sees they’re all “extremely passionate about the students. It’s great to win games on the field, but it’s also that they’re there to help develop the student, not just being judged by wins and losses, but by the type of individual they are.”
What’s does that development mean? “You’ll find the style I believe in strongly is, wins will come – when you start developing that whole person. When coaches are able to do that, it’s gonna happen.”
The fall seasons are already looming for football, softball, boys’ soccer, girls’ golf and tennis, and volleyball. The football Longhorns have now made the playoffs three years in a row.
They open Sept. 6 at Olathe.
Santo has already looked in on veteran coach Carl Frerichs’ athletes gearing up.
He says, “There were plenty of kids in Carl’s weight room the other day. You could see the relationship they have, and how he draws those kids into his program. I’m telling you now, after eight years of Carl being in charge, there’s a reason Basalt football’s been so successful and growing the past few years. You have a solid coach in that position, to lead the kids in the right way. When you have amazing individuals, your student-athlete is going to thrive. I believe all the coaches I’ve talked to across the board at Basalt are helping students reach those goals.”
Not a ‘pass-over’ any more
Those long-ago family ski vacations didn’t give young Santo much more than town names on highway signs to remember on the way to the upper Valley. He’s getting a lot more, on the ground.
“You see what I now love about Basalt. One thing that drew us here is a real sense of family. The kids I’ve met are all pulling together. When we would come out here, all the way into my 20s, we’d always drive straight to Aspen. Basalt became kind of a pass-over town — go right through, get to Aspen. But I’ve said to coaches I don’t think Basalt is a ‘pass-over’ area anymore.
“People are coming to settle down, to be a part of this community, and there’s growth going on. What’s really exciting is to see these new athletes and families come into town and join an amazing community.”
His family’s experienced the best of Basalt already, as he adds, “My wife and I were on a hike the other day with our kids, and she’d said ‘hi’ to several people on the trail. Stephanie turned to me and said, ‘you know, people are always so open and friendly here.’ That makes the community of Basalt great. I know when I walk in on the first day of school (Aug. 19), not just with athletes but in general, that’s what’s gonna make me feel Basalt is such a great school.”
Jason Santo seems to be ready for a long tenure. He says his whole family’s excited to be here.
“My wife and I made this move because we believe in Basalt, and the people of this Valley. We were out here last year during the Lake Christine Fire, and saw how the community came together at such a difficult time. I couldn’t be more proud to be the athletic director of Basalt High School. Now that it’s actually happening, my wife and I look at each other and go, ‘this is real, and we’re here.’ I’m excited about the future of Basalt athletics, and Basalt education in general.”
Oh, and our headline? We’re not kidding. As Jason says, “my father’s name actually is ‘Ron Santo,’ so in Chicago it was beneficial for him when we were growing up. That would get us moved forward a bit on wait lists at some restaurants.
“I do remember in Aspen at one point, we were at a downtown photo shop and the worker behind the counter was like, ‘Are you the Ron Santo from the Cubs?’ And my dad’s like ‘oh, why?’ He didn’t even say yes, but the guy goes on, ‘Oh, my boss is the biggest Cubs fan. It would mean the world to him if you would sign this.’ So my dad of course signed it to him, and wasn’t lying that he was ‘Ron Santo.’ ”
That’s a comical connection to the “other” Ron Santo, and Jason Santo adds that despite being originally from Detroit, he’s a huge Cubs fan with a seatback signed by the Ron he’s not related to, in the moving van on the way here from Illinois.
He’s serious though, about his family’s happy start on life in this valley, and he’s grateful — dedicating himself to a positive future for all the Longhorn teams and student-athletes of Basalt High School.