When Kristina Santiago is on the court, her focus is narrowed.
Put the ball in the basket. Grab the rebound. Snatch the steal. That’s all there is to think about.
And the reigning Big West Conference women’s basketball Player of the Year could end up being considered the best at Cal Poly to do all that and more.
It’s only the rest of the time — when the former Righetti High standout isn’t consumed by killer instinct — that the reality of being in her senior season begins to fill the air around her like an evening fog.
This is the last chance the local product will have to deliver Cal Poly a Big West Conference title and a trip to the program’s first NCAA Tournament. These are the final college games Santiago will play in pursuit of a WNBA roster spot.
“I just want to win so bad,” said Santiago at the Big West’s Central Coast basketball media day at Embassy Suites on Thursday. “So the ‘one day at a time’ is going to be really important, but I definitely feel the urgency. It’s there.
“That kind of scares me to be honest, to not know what happens next year. The draft or overseas, whatever it is, it’s unstable right now. So, it’s definitely a scary feeling. I know I have to do good this year. So, it’s definitely a weight on the shoulders, but once I get on the court, everything just kind of goes away.”
The head coaches and key players from both the men’s and women’s programs from Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara all spoke at the media event, a precursor to the Mustangs’ Mott Madness preseason kickoff event on campus tonight.
The Cal Poly men are dealing with two season-ending injuries but are still looking to improve in their second season under coach Joe Callero.
Arguably, though, none of the above teams are under the type of pressure to win that the Mustangs’ women’s team is now that Santiago — within range of topping eight Cal Poly career program lists — is in her senior year and sharpshooter Rachel Clancy put off a return to her native Ireland to play one more season in San Luis Obispo as a graduate student.
After blowing a lead to lose the Big West Tournament final in 2009 and disappointingly bowing out in the semifinals last season, Clancy came back to win a championship.
“When I was looking at the pieces that we had coming back this year, I thought we had a really good chance of having more success than we did last year,” said Clancy, who scored 11.3 points per game and shot 45 percent from 3-point range last season. The biggest reason why is Santiago, a 6-foot-1, three-year starter who averaged career bests with 19.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game.
It was a recruiting coup of sorts for Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh to land the local standout and former PAC 7 Player of the Year three years ago, and now that Santiago’s nearly run out of eligibility, the sense of urgency to raise the program to unprecedented heights is undeniable.
“I’m feeling it,” Mimnaugh said. “I think that they are, too. I think they all sense that this is a tremendous opportunity for us, and we’re going to go for it.”
For the Mustangs men, one topic on what would have been the 100th birthday of legendary coach John Wooden was their scheduled nonconference trip to Wooden’s former UCLA team, the first time Cal Poly will have played the Bruins in 50 years and the program’s first trip to Pauley Pavilion.
Another topic was the loss of junior point guard Amaurys Fermin and sophomore Kyle Odister, who might both have started if not for season-ending injuries.
“We’re definitely going to miss them, but we have to turn the page on that,” junior forward David Hanson said. “I think we’ve got a ton of new guys that are going to be able to step up and fill spots.
“I’m confident we got guys that are going to be able to fill that, and I think sky’s the limit. I don’t think there’s a ceiling at all as far as how good we can be.”