Both Boris Novachkov and Kristina Santiago envisioned themselves walking across the stage at Embassy Suites this time last year.
Instead, they watched fellow Cal Poly athletes accept the awards for male and female Student Athlete of the Year.
Santiago had been used to watching by that point. The former Righetti High basketball standout tore her ACL in the 2010-11 Mustangs season opener and was relegated to spectator as teammate Rachel Clancy had an Athlete of the Year season.
Novachkov had the résumé that year — a runner-up national finish at the NCAA Wrestling Championships — but a slumping grade-point average hindered his chances, and men’s basketball player Shawn Lewis walked away with the award.
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Wednesday was redemption for both seniors.
With improved academic performance and a third-place national finish that helped him become Cal Poly’s first three-time wrestling All-American, Novachkov took home the crystal trophy at the Night of the Mustang awards banquet, besting an all-star group of candidates.
“There’s definitely a lot of good athletes, all the nominees, but it feels nice to receive this,” said Novachkov, who beat out fifth-round NFL Draft pick Asa Jackson of football and Big West players of the year Mitch Haniger from baseball and Andre Dome from men’s tennis.
“I thought I was going to get it last year.”
Santiago shrugged off the knee injury to earn her second Big West Conference Player of the Year award. After winning as a junior in 2010, she is Cal Poly’s female athlete of the year for the second time and made it a three-year streak for women’s basketball, which had never had a player of the year before Santiago hit campus.
“It’s definitely a huge bragging point,” Santiago said of women’s basketball’s recent string. “That’s a huge deal for a program that had never gotten it before.”
Now, they’ll both each enjoy a professional career in their chosen sports.
Up first, Santiago will head to China in July to play on a team made up of recent college graduates from the United States against national teams from several foreign countries. Upon her return, she expects to be playing for a European pro team in the fall.
Santiago said she’s received a contract offer from a top-level team in Switzerland and could sign soon. After ranking fifth in the nation in scoring (23.4 points per game) and becoming Cal Poly’s all-time leader in points (1,953), rebounds (850) and field goal percentage (.540), the AP All-America honorable mention selection had a tryout with the WNBA but went undrafted in April.
Novachkov is weighing offers from college programs around the country to become an assistant coach while he trains to become a national freestyle wrestler. His goal it to make the national team by the next Olympics in 2016 and he’s planning to compete well through 2020.
The two-time Pac-12 champion racked up a 121-33 record at Cal Poly. His top-three national finishes both came at 141 pounds. He was seventh in the nation at 133 pounds in 2010.
Novachkov has an offer from Mustangs head coach Brendan Buckley to keep him in San Luis Obispo, but there are several others trying to lure him away, too.
“I’ll take a little break and move to where I decide to go,” Novachkov said. “Michigan, Missouri, Illinois, Cal Poly, there’s a few others, but those are the top four that I’m looking at.”