ANAHEIM — Whenever a Cal Poly women’s basketball player has her name announced in the starting lineups, each one comes face-to-face, side-to-side or back-to-back with Kristina Santiago.
The Mustangs senior forward, still recovering from surgery to repair a torn ACL suffered in the season opener, is the last person teammates see in the high-five tunnel, doling out spinning chest bumps and tailored handshakes.
Santiago is Cal Poly’s biggest cheerleader, and the team is hers — with some players joining her for rehab workouts in the pool and coaches proctoring simple ball-handling drills and free-throw sessions.
Still, the longer the season has gone, the more trying it’s been for her.
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“It was definitely a really emotional year for me,” Santiago said prior to the team’s 66-49 loss to UC Davis in Saturday’s Big West Conference Tournament final. “For the team, it’s amazing. I’m so happy for the team and so proud of what we’ve done up until this point, but for me personally it was kind of up and down.
“You couldn’t be more happy for your team, but I wish I could be a part of it more on the court. It’s definitely an emotional rollercoaster.”
Coming off a season in which she averaged 19.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, led the conference with 70 steals and was named Big West Player of the Year, Santiago was poised to attack the Cal Poly statistical record books and chase the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth.
Instead, Tuesday will start the four-week countdown until doctors are expected to clear her to start running again. Within the next few months, she’ll also start making cuts on her surgically repaired left knee.
She hopes to be playing basketball with no restrictions by the end of the summer, and after a redshirt year, Santiago is confident she will be able to pick up right where she left off.
“I might be a little out the roof right now about how excited I am about coming back,” Santiago said. “My confidence of coming back strong is probably just out the roof.”
Santiago remains the asterisk to this successful season for Cal Poly. It’s hard to compliment the Mustangs and head coach Faith Mimnaugh without noting that they won their first share of a Big West Conference regular-season title and will receive their first postseason tournament berth in program history when the WNIT field is announced Monday night minus Santiago.
“To have done it under the circumstances that they did,” UC Davis head coach Sandy Simpson said after the Big West final, “having lost the reigning conference player of the year in Kristina Santiago and overcoming that and stepping up and really playing collectively well enough to get a share of the conference title, Faith did a great job with this group.”
Rehabilitation on her second ACL surgery — Santiago tore the same ligament on her other knee at the end of her junior season at Righetti High — has her ahead of projected schedules.
There was no shortage of motivation even before accompanying the team on its trek to the Honda Center.
Hearing all the names announced except for hers in the arena where she’ll hope to take next year’s Big West championship sure does add to the angst.
“Even just being here,” Santiago said, “I kind of picture myself on the court and doing things. I’m like ‘Gosh, I just can’t wait to come back.’ ”