When Kristina Santiago arrived at Cal Poly three years ago, Faith Mimnaugh thought she could become one of the elite women’s basketball players in the Big West Conference.
“In the recruiting process, we thought that could be a possibility,” said Mimnaugh, the Mustangs head coach. “She had such a work ethic, and with her gifted athletic ability, if she had the good fortune to be healthy, we thought that would put her in a unique category.”
Santiago, a 6-foot-1 junior forward, was named the Big West Player of the Year on Monday, becoming the first Cal Poly player — on the men’s or women’s sides — to take home the award since the school joined the Big West in 1996.
The Righetti High grad led all Big West players in points per game (19.9) and steals per game (2.39), while finishing second in rebounds per game (8.5) and field-goal percentage (54.7). Her scoring average was 13th in the country.
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Early Monday, Santiago was bombarded with vague congratulatory text messages while she was in class, she said, before learning she had indeed won the award by talking to Mimnaugh soon after.
“It’s such a huge honor,” Santiago said. “I’m very appreciative. It took everyone from our coaching staff and the team.”
Cal Poly (18-10, 11-5 Big West) earned a bye to open the Big West tournament in the semifinals as a No. 2 seed at 2:30 Friday afternoon at the Anaheim Convention Center, where it will face the highest remaining seed. UC Davis (20-9, 12-4), which enters as the No. 1 seed, saw 2004 Atascadero High grad Haylee Donaghe named the conference Defensive Player of the Year. She tied for the most steals (67) in the Big West. Donaghe, now a senior guard for the Aggies, was also named to the honorable mention list after averaging 7.4 points per game this year.
Santiago, the first player in Cal Poly history to collect 500 points and 200 rebounds in the same year, is 77 points shy of becoming the school’s all-time third-leading scorer. She was also an all-conference first-team selection as a sophomore after making the all-freshman team in 2007-08.
The Mustangs had two players on the honorable mention list in junior guard Rachel Clancy and senior guard Brittany Lange. Clancy posted 11.2 points per game and shot 3-pointers at a Big West-best 45.6 percent. Lange, meanwhile, averaged 8.2 points a game. The Mustangs are fourth in the nation in assists per game at 18.4.
“Teams can’t just worry about me when we’ve got those amazing 3-point threats,” Santiago said. “We’ve got multiple players who don’t get recognition for the things they do — things you don’t get honors for or put in the record books for, but things that win games. I credit them for pretty much everything.”
The rest of the first team was made up by Long Beach State guard Karina Figueroa, UC Irvine forward Mikah Maly-Karros, UC Davis forward Paige Mintun, UC Riverside guard Alyssa Morris and Cal State Fullerton guard Megan Richardson. UC Irvine’s Jazmyne White won freshman of the year honors, while UC Davis’ Sandy Simpson was named the coach of the year.
If Santiago were to win the award as a senior, she would become the first player to win it back-to-back since UC Santa Barbara’s Erin Buescher, who claimed the honor from 1998 to 2000 before going on to play seven years in the WNBA — a pinnacle Mimnaugh has stated she believes Santiago can reach.
“She has the ability to play at four different (positions) for us,” Mimnaugh said, “and she’s still not even close to the kind of player she will be some day.”