A Look at the Cutino Finalists For College Water Polo Player of the Year Awards

Lauren Steele

A Look at the Cutino Finalists For College Water Polo Players of the Year

The 2023-24 Cutino Award finalists for the top collegiate men and women water polo athletes in America are in. Like the NCAA men’s and women’s finals, this year’s Cutino prospects are a replay of Cal versus UCLA matchups with the winners likely mirroring the national championship results: a Golden Bear winning on the men’s side and a Bruin winning on the women’s.

This year’s winners will be crowned on Saturday, June 1 at The Olympic Club in downtown San Francisco.

25th Annual Cutino Awards at The Olympic Club

Photo Courtesy: USA Water Polo

The men’s finalists, announced in April, present no surprises. Cal’s Nikolaos Papanikolaou and UCLA’s Rafael Real Vergara were joined by Princeton’s Roko Pozaric. Papanikolaou is a two-time Cutino winner (2022, 2023) and—despite a season interrupted by injury—was dynamic when it counted most, helping the Golden Bears to a 13-11 NCAA finals win over the Bruins. He notched 95 drawn exclusions—a career high—and 43 goals, which pushed his Cal career total to 253, good for second all-time behind Chris Humbert. In leading Cal to a 17th NCAA title, most in men’s water polo, he capped his time in Berkeley with a third straight finals MVP and a third consecutive finals win.

Real Vergara, who last year transferred to UCLA after three years at Long Beach State, scored a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation-high 71 goals for a Bruins squad that opened the season with 24 straight wins before stumbling late, including losses to USC and Stanford in the MPSF tournament and then Cal in the final.

Pozaric put up big numbers for a Tiger side that won more games (28) and finished ranked higher (fifth) than any Princeton team ever has. In his final season in New Jersey, the Croatian native notched 76 goals—fourth best in program history—and 47 assists to become the program’s first-ever finalist.

Ashleigh Johnson won a Cutino in 2017 for Princeton’s women, becoming the first and only non-West Coast winner.

It will not be surprising if Papanikolaou is named a three-time Cutino winner—which will put him second only to Tony Azevado (four wins) as the most decorated collegian in NCAA history.

On the women’s side there is a surprise. UCLA freshman Lauren Steele, who before this season was not considered a likely starter, let alone one of three finalists for best collegiate female in the country, made the Cutino cut, along with Isabel Williams of Cal and Bia Mantellato Dias of Hawai’i.

What makes it interesting? Steele was not included among the 22 athletes on the Cutino Watch List released in March.

Water Polo: Women’s Watch List for 25th Peter J. Cutino Award – Heisman Equivalent

The appraisal of Steele has certainly changed, so much so that the Cutino women’s race pits an unheralded newcomer against a career-long standout who led her team to its first national championship match in more than a decade. Before backstopping UCLA to an undefeated season and a first women’s title since 2009, Steele beat out senior Sydney Chiang to replace Georgia Phillips, last season’s starter lost to graduation. The freshman phenom has been stalwart in goal, registering 268 saves, a 6.82 GAA and outplaying the All-American Williams in all three matchups this season, including in the NCAA final when she registered 17 saves while her team smothered Cal 7-4.

Williams, who recorded 885 saves for her Cal career—good for tops all-time in the Cal record books—led the Golden Bears to their first NCAA final since 2011. With 326 saves and a .653 save percentage, the Maryland native was the stopper for a Cal defense that held opponents to 6.8 goals per game and allowed only three opponents to register double-digits in goals. 

Mantellato Dias had a strong sophomore season in Honolulu, registering 64 goals and 60 drawn exclusions to become Hawai’i’s first-ever Cutino finalist. It was a banner year for the Wahine, who in addition to taking the Big West title, advanced to an NCAA semifinal and attained their highest-ever ranking (third) in the CWPA Women’s Varsity Poll. But 2024 has also been bittersweet; the Wahine said goodbye to longtime head coach Maureen Cole, who leaves after 17 seasons including 13 as head coach.

It’s a lock that a netminder will win on the women’s side; meaning either Steele or Williams will join the seven previous Cutino winners who were goalies—including four on the women’s side. If Steele cops a Cutino she will be the first female freshman; the only other freshman winner: Azevedo. It’s hard to compare her to one of the greatest players in US polo history, but Steele already has one thing in common with the five-time Olympian; both won an NCAA title their freshman year.

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