As his daughter’s knee ligament tore, so did Tony Santiago’s heartstrings.
By 2006, 16-year-old Kristina Santiago had gone from daddy’s little girl to youth soccer star to a can’t-miss Righetti High basketball star looking to sign a scholarship offer with a Division I university.
But when she injured her anterior cruciate ligament with two regular-season games left to go for a then-undefeated Warriors team her junior year, the uncertainty was near calamitous.
“Back in my day, if you tore your ACL, you were screwed,” said Tony Santiago, who lettered at Righetti himself before playing two years of basketball at Allan Hancock College and later at NAIA Eastern Oregon. “I was really bummed out.”
These days, torn ACLs are common injuries for female basketball players and have a high rate of recovery, but there was still a stigma marking Kristina Santiago on the recruiting circuit.
The toughest part about it for Tony was calling the coaches that were recruiting his daughter to tell them she was out. For Kristina, it was possibly watching the Warriors lose their playoff opener.
One of the coaches picking up the phone was Cal Poly’s Faith Mimnaugh, who’d first fallen in love with the lithe 6-foot-1 forward when she’d attended a Mustangs basketball camp as ninth-grader.
Mimnaugh was at the fateful game, saw the tear and capitalized on the opportunity to stand out from a crowd of shrinking suitors by standing pat.
“I was totally partial to Faith because she stepped up and offered her a full-ride scholarship,” Tony Santiago said.
And that’s how Cal Poly, which hadn’t had a winning season under Mimnaugh before Kristina Santiago’s arrival, was able to shift the balance of power in the Big West Conference away from rival and perennial champion UC Santa Barbara — by snatching a player from the Gauchos’ own home county.
In less than three seasons, Santiago has since become one of the best Mustangs players in program history, ranking high on several career lists and enjoying perhaps the best year of any Cal Poly player at the Division I level.
Before the knee injury, Santiago said she was being recruited by Arizona, Utah, Santa Clara, San Diego, Pepperdine, UC Irvine and Cal State Bakersfield. She even “got a handwritten letter from the UCLA coach, which I was really stoked about my junior year.”
But after the injury, Santiago felt only one place had supported her throughout.
“A lot of the coaches were like, ‘Oh, well, get back to us when you get better,’ obviously kind of like scratching one off the list,” Santiago said. “So that was really hard for me because I didn’t really know what was going to happen.
“Coach Faith was the one that was calling me after my surgery and said, ‘It doesn’t matter what you did, you still have a scholarship.’ ”
Said Mimnaugh: “I had a real strong belief that if the surgery went well, this was going to be one tremendous player … I see players hurt and sometimes there are limitations that come with that, but she was somebody that struck me as a person who was going to battle and come back.”
The calculated risk has led to great reward for Mimnaugh.
Heading into the team’s final regular-season game Saturday at UC Irvine, Santiago is averaging conference highs with 19.9 points and 2.5 steals per game. She also ranks second in the Big West with 8.5 rebounds per game and a 54.6 field goal percentage.
With more than a year left to go in her college career, Santiago is fourth on the Mustangs career scoring list and seventh in rebounds. Her career scoring average is already second in program history.
Those kind of numbers make a strong case for Santiago being the first Cal Poly player to become the Big West Player of the Year, but she seems genuinely more invested in the numbers of wins and losses.
“Everything I’m doing, everything I work for is towards wins for the team,” Santiago said. “That’s my biggest thing, is getting my team out there. It means nothing if you have this Cal Poly girl putting up all these stats, but the team’s not winning.”
And she has brought team success.
With Santiago as the centerpiece the past two seasons, Mimnaugh has had her first two winning campaigns.
During that span, the Mustangs have set or tied program records for overall wins (21) and winning percentage (.656) in 2008-09.
They got to the finals of the Big West Tournament for the first time with their 21-win campaign last season, the first since the program had 20 wins since 1982.
Cal Poly is 17-10 (10-5 Big West) this season but has set program records for home wins (12) and home winning percentage (.857).
Santiago, of course, has not done it all by herself, but she’s the kind of rare combination of size and speed that gives opposing coaches fits and opens up opportunities for teammates.
“I really couldn’t think more highly of her,” second-year UC Santa Barbara coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “I would say that probably every coach in the league spends a lot of time thinking about how you contain her.
“If you put a big kid on her, she’s going to use her speed and her finesse qualities, and go by them,” Gottlieb added. “And if you put a smaller player on her, she’s going to rise up and go over you.”
Santiago’s unique skill set comes from her roots in soccer and from growing up as the middle child between a couple of basketball-crazed brothers.
When Santiago played with Tony and her older brother Brian, now a 6-8 senior forward for NAIA Montana State-Northern, and younger brother Derrick, a senior football player at Righetti, she got no mercy. So she had to learn how to play just like them.
She developed the kind of speed displayed on her regular coast-to-coast scoring layups as a youth soccer player, a club sport she gave up in favor of basketball in middle school. Tony Santiago was certain she could have been a collegiate soccer player just as easily.
“We designed our half-court traps with her in mind,” former Righetti coach Harold Oliveira said, “because we knew if she got a steal, it was going to be a layup. They made passes cross court, and it was just layup after layup.”
For Gottlieb, that statement comes with a little bit of sting since Santiago grew up in northern Santa Barbara County.
For a program that has been the dominant force in the Big West — prior to this season, UC Santa Barbara has had only two years since 1997 where it has lost more than two conference games — losing a player from its own back yard hurts.
It’s hard to believe the Gauchos would be mired in their current 12-16 season with Santiago.
“When we went and played there my freshman year, I think it was their athletic director came up to me and said, ‘You’re from Santa Maria? Did we recruit you? What were we thinking?’ ” Santiago said.
Said Oliveira: “That’s their mistake. They screwed up, and that’s all there is to it.”
Santiago said the Gauchos did enter the recruiting fray but not seriously until after she made her commitment to Cal Poly.
Mimnaugh thanks it all to the knee injury that took Santiago off some recruiting boards, and the Mustangs are now certainly reaping the benefits — with one more season left to go.
“She’s a gem,” Mimnaugh said, “And that fact is she hasn’t come close to where she’s going to be.”
Cal Poly Career Leaders
Player Seasons Points Avg.
1. Laura Buehning 1979-82 1,843 20.6
2. Megan Harrison 2005-09 1,454 12.3
3. Christine Rodness 1991-95 1,337 13.6
4. Kristina Santiago 2007-Present 1,241 13.8
5. Sherri Atteberry 1983-87 1,076 11.0
6. Jessica Eggleston 2003-07 1,052 9.7
7. Kellie Hoffman 1992-96 1,033 10.9
8. Susan Carey 1991-96 1,023 10.4
9. Jody Hasselfield 1987-90 1,018 13.1
10. Carolyn Crandall 1979-83 979 8.9
Player Seasons Rebounds Avg.
1. Susan Carey 1991-96 775 7.9
2. Sherri Atteberry 1983-87 692 7.1
3. Megan Harrison 2005-09 685 5.8
4. Jessica Eggleston 2003-07 650 6.0
5. Russia Madden 1986-90 605 6.8
6. Carolyn Crandall 1979-83 573 5.2
7. Kristina Santiago 2007-Present 547 6.1
8. Nancy Hosken 1981-84 510 5.2
9. Rona Bevien 1994-98 508 4.9
10. Heather Journey 1999-2003 490 4.5
— Cal Poly Sports Information