The handmade sign hung from the scoreboard at Maine Central Institutes’s football field for most of the season.

“Where in the world is Jonathan Santiago,” it read. “Check the end zone.”

More often than not, the end zone was the place to find Santiago this fall. A junior running back for MCI, Santiago averaged more than three touchdowns per game.

“He’s a very special kid for us. He hadn’t played much football before he came to MCI,” head coach Tom Bertrand said.

Santiago led the Little Ten Conference in rushing, with 1,500 yards, and scoring, with 29 touchdowns. Santiago was a big play threat every time he had the ball. For his strong season, Santiago has been named the Morning Sentinel Football Player of the Year. Winslow’s Dylan Hapworth also was considered.

As a sophomore, the 5-foot-8, 165-pound Santiago ran for 1,000 yards, but the Huskies struggled through a winless season, and he went relatively unnoticed.

This year, when he ran for three touchdowns in MCI’s season-opening 41-6 win at Orono, Santiago had the LTC’s attention.

“He really just appeared on the scene. Who is this kid, all of a sudden?” Stearns head coach Chris Preble said. “Now you have to prepare for him. He’s not a big kid, but he has great explosiveness and speed. If he had any daylight, there was a chance he was gone.”

Preble would know Santiago’s strengths as well as any opposing coach. When MCI hosted Preble’s Minutemen in Week 2, Santiago sprinted and sloshed his way through a driving rain and soaked field for 203 yards on 17 carries. Santiago scored five touchdowns that night, four on runs of at least 20 yards, including a 72-yard run on his first carry of the game.

“He played full speed, relentless. It was really nice to see that type of kid explode, and I think that confidence of the team, as he had success, just built,” Preble said.

Santiago scored 25 of his touchdowns on the ground, and one out of every five of his carries went for a score. He gained his 1,500 yards on 114 carries, averaging just over 13 yards per carry. He almost certainly would have gained more, but a first quarter concussion knocked him out of MCI’s final game, a regional semifinal loss to Mattanawcook Academy. Santiago was playing defense at the time, trying to make a tackle on a simple slant pass.

“I went to tackle, and he hit me harder, I guess,” Santiago said.

A native of Lawrence, Mass., Santiago came to MCI as a shy freshman.

“I wanted to experience something new and go to a new place, so I decided to come to MCI,” Santiago said.

Bertrand assigned then-senior Adam Ogden as a mentor to Santiago, who was a newcomer to football.

“Freshman year was my first year playing organized football. Back home, all I played was seven on seven, stuff like that,” Santiago said.

Added Bertrand: “We found out quickly what he does well.”

What Santiago does as well is run. Throughout the season, if given just a little running room, Santiago turned it into a score. His best game of the season may have been at John Bapst in Bangor in early October.

Bapst opened the game with a long scoring drive to take a 7-0 lead. On the Huskies’ first offensive play, Santiago went 80 yards for a touchdown. He finished the game with four touchdowns, adding a second 80-yard TD run and a 73-yard touchdown run, and gained 255 yards.

Santiago was the perfect weapon for MCI’s no huddle, hurry up offense. Many of Santiago’s best runs came on toss plays.

“I like toss. That’s my favorite play. It gives me a lot of freedom. If certain people do certain blocks, I can get big gains,” Santiago said.

Santiago had one receiving touchdown, and scored three times on special teams, returning kickoffs or punts. Again, his speed combined with field vision, was key.

“I’m just focused on getting into the end zone somehow,” Santiago said. “The first route I see, that’s usually the one I go with.”

With one more year to go at MCI, Santiago would like to lead the LTC in rushing again next season, and his goal is to help the Huskies win a Gold Ball. Santiago also plays basketball and sprints for the outdoor track and field team, where he placed fourth in Class C in the 100-meter dash last spring.

“He’s hardworking, and with athletic ability, that’s a great combination,” Bertrand said. “He made a big jump from his sophomore to junior year. He’s got even more potential than he’s shown.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242[email protected]Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM