Cal Poly’s male and female athletes of the year have more in common than just the awards they were given at the annual Night of the Mustang banquet at Embassy Suites on Wednesday.
In earning the honors, both senior wrestler Chase Pami and junior basketball player Kristina Santiago had outstanding seasons, but those seasons also left them wanting more.
A No. 7 seed in the NCAA Championships, Pami’s string of upsets led him to the 157-pound national championship match, where his career ended with 6-4 loss to top-seeded J.P. O’Connor of Harvard.
Santiago became the first Cal Poly woman to win the Big West Player of the Year award since the Mustangs joined the conference in 1994. She is head coach Faith Mimnaugh’s first Cal Poly Athlete of the Year in 14 seasons, but she fell short in leading the Mustangs to either a Big West regular season or tournament title.
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“It’s kind of an insane feeling because of how we haven’t gotten the Big West championship,” Santiago said. “That’s what we work for and it’s all of us working every day for it, not just me. So, it’s like it’s really cool, but it would be so much better if we had that championship.“Then again, it’s such an amazing honor to be recognized, especially when you look at all the other athletes that were recognized. It’s an incredible, incredible award.”
Santiago led the Big West in scoring and steals per game (2.41), while ranking second in the Big West in rebounding (8.4 per game) and field goal percentage.
Her 19.6 points per game ranked 16th in Division I and her 54.5 percent shooting mark was 19th.
Santiago became the first player in program history to score 500 points and grab 200 rebounds in the same season, and her assault on the Cal Poly record books is far from over.
At her current pace, Mimnaugh said during her introduction speech, the 6-foot-2 forward is on pace to own eight Mustangs career records by the end of her senior season.
Mimnaugh is hoping that by this time next year the program will be able to tout its first Big West title and the former Righetti High standout will be on a WNBA roster — not unrealistic goals considering Mimnaugh’s recent record at prognostication. “The coaches have pretty much predicted everything I was going to do,” Santiago said. “It’s really weird. My senior year, I came in for recruiting, and they sat down and were like ‘This is what we’re expecting from you: Freshman of the year, first-team all-conference, Big West player of the year in my junior year.’ So, it’s really cool that we put these goals together, and it came true.”
Pami’s goal has always been to win a national championship, and in each of his four seasons, he made progress toward accomplishing it. His first season, he went 0-2 at the NCAA Championships. He got his first postseason win the next year.
As a junior, he was an All-American, and this past season, he was the lowest remaining seed in any weight class to make a title match. Pami joined Tom Kline (1968), John Woods (1969), Cliff Hatch (1975), Louie Montano (1983) and Chad Mendes (2008) as the only Mustangs to earn national second-place finishes. Only three Cal Poly wrestlers have won national titles.
The confidence boost from his run to the finals as well as the ultimate disappointment led to Pami’s decision to pursue wrestling at the international level, which along with the growing sport of mixed martial arts, represents one of only a couple ways amateur wrestlers can continue using their athletic skills beyond college.
“It burns a little,” Pami said of the final loss. “Still does. Afterward, I thought and said this is going to burn and this is going to sting, but I think those are the things that drive you at the next level. That’s what’s going to push me to train and win an Olympic medal.”
Pami compiled a 100-35 career record at Cal Poly, which included a 29-7 record as a senior.
He is the second Mustangs wrestler in the past three seasons to be named Athlete of the Year. Mendes, who saw his undefeated season end in a championship defeat, earned the distinction in 2008.
Pami said ever since Mendes won Athlete of the Year, he’d been aiming to do the same.
“I’m pretty stoked on it,” Pami said. “It’s just an exciting thing. I don’t have any words for it.
“Chad Mendes was up there, and I thought it would be cool to be up there, and I’m still kind of living out this chapter of that national finish. It’s almost done, but I’m enjoying that final piece before I go on to the next level.”