Jefferson P. Nolan
The Cal Poly women’s basketball team had only one offensive mission last season: get the ball to Kristina Santiago.
The rest would take care of itself.
“Give the ball to her, and she’ll score every time,” sophomore guard Ariana Elegado said of her old teammate and friend. “It was like playing with a famous WNBA star. Really. She was amazing.”
But Santiago’s departure from Cal Poly was a reality check for the team.
“I think when Kristina left,” Elegado said, “we kind of just looked at each other and said ‘OK, who’s going to be our next leader?’ I think Coach (Mimnaugh) did a really good job of giving confidence to each player. We’ve had multiple players leading every game from scoring to assists and rebounding. I think that losing Kristina right now hasn’t really impacted us because as a team, we’re doing really well. We know our roles, and our coach has given us a lot of confidence.”
Including the loss of Santiago, the team also lost three of its top five scorers. Ashlee Burns and Kristine Martin graduated along with Santiago, and more recently, the team lost freshman Maddison Allen to a season-ending injury.
“(Allen) is one of the best shot blockers we’ve ever had in Cal Poly history,” Mimnaugh said. “We’ll be missing her, but we’ve got a number of players who’ve got that shot blocking mentality. There are a number of players who are trying to fill in.”
They have big shoes to fill.
Santiago, a Santa Maria native emerging from Righetti High school, made the Big West All-Freshman Team in her first year at Cal Poly. And after averaging 7.1 points per game and posting a team-best .497 field goal percentage, she began to raise a few eyebrows.
“She is the most motivated competitive person I know,” teammate Kayla Griffin said. “She plays to win. She gives it her all every time. Coming into (a game), we’re all really competitive, but seeing her get fired up, of course everyone feeds off that energy.”
Santiago improved in her sophomore year after making the All-Big West first team after finishing second among conference players with a .526 field goal percentage and an average of 15.2 points per game.
“You could pretty much start to get back on defense,” head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “As soon as you passed her the ball you pretty much knew it was going in. We could swing her around and she could play the two, three, four, five-man positions. A multipositional player. Athletic. A scorer’s mentality.”
In her junior season, Santiago earned the title of Big West Conference Player of the Year by notching an average of 19.6 points and 8.4 rebounds after starting all 29 games for the Mustangs and scoring in double figures in each game.
Her promising senior year was cut short after Santiago sustained a season-ending knee injury in the very first game of the 2010-11 season.
The basketball sensation returned as a redshirt senior to capture an honorable mention on the Associated Press All-America Team, becoming the second Cal Poly player to achieve All-American status and the first at the Division I level. Santiago finished her senior year fifth in the nation in scoring, sixth in field goal percentage and 31st in rebounding, leading the Big West in all three categories.
The two-time Big West Conference Player of the Year may indeed go down as one of the greatest players in program history. Santiago finished her career as Cal Poly’s all-time leader in points (1,953), rebounds (850) and field goal percentage (.540).
Santiago is continuing her basketball career playing for Dunav 8806 in Ruse, Bulgaria.
Without its star player this season, the team kicked off the season with a loss to Oklahoma State, but in its second game, it upset Pac-12 Oregon State on the road. Now after recording their third victory in conference play, a triple-overtime nail biter against Pacific, the Mustang’s have begun to fill the shoes Santiago had left at Cal Poly.
And nobody knows how different her role has changed more than Elegado.
“I was that type of person that would back off a little, give (Santiago) the ball, and let her do her thing,” Elegado said. “But now that she’s gone, my role has totally changed. I can’t just give the ball to one person.”
This week, the Mustangs are looking to notch their fourth conference win when they host rival UC Santa Barbara on Saturday in Mott Gym. And Mimnaugh knows that her team has a fight ahead of them.
“We have to be in fast-pace mode,” she said. “We don’t have the luxury of just throwing it to Kristina and letting her create (scoring opportunities), so we have to get numbers that way to get some scores. We’re a work in progress, and it kind of goes from game to game to see who’s going to rise. I think that we’re getting close to finding the right formula. But we don’t have anybody to replace Santiago. Not one sole person; it’s a committee for sure.”
A “committee” that is well into the post-Santiago era, with its members learning to depend on each other. All in the pursuit of something that even Santiago was unable to accomplish: a spot in the NCAA tournament.