Cal Sweeps Cutino Awards: Nikolaos Papanikolaou, Isabel Williams Named Top Collegiate Water Polo Athletes

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Cal Sweeps Cutino Awards: Nikolaos Papanikolaou, Isabel Williams Top Collegiate Water Polo Athletes

The Olympic Club in downtown San Francisco turned into a hometown hootenanny as the local Cal Golden Bears swept the awards for the best male and female water polo players in collegiate play. 

In capturing his third straight Cutino Award as the nation’s top male polo player, Nikolaos Papanikolaou became only the second individual ever to win that “Heisman Awards” for water polo, just behind four-time winner Tony Azevedo.

Isabel Williams became the first-ever Cal Bear woman to win the award, and only the second Eastern player—Miami-born Ashleigh Johnson was the first in 2017—to be named the top NCAA female polo player. Williams, who was born in Severna Park, Maryland and came to prominence as a member of the Navy Aquatics Club in Annapolis, thanked her mother Kari in her acceptance speech.

“My mom earns the spot as the No. 1 supporter,” Williams said. “She’s been with me through every step of the journey and I’m so grateful that I’ve had her for everything in and out of the pool.”

This season, the fifth-year senior goalie set the all-time Cal mark of 885 saves in leading the Golden Bears to their first NCAA finals appearance since 2011, a 7-4 loss to UCLA.

“[Isabel] really took hold of the group in terms of appreciating the moments we have together, getting better from week to week and having fun with it,” Cal Head Coach Coralie Simmons, herself a 2002 Cutino winner, said of her netminder’s impact on teammates. “Without her leadership and voice in all that, as well as others, knowing that Isabel was going to champion them and that they were going to champion her, we wouldn’t have had the outcomes we had this season.

Papanikolaou, who finished his Cal career with 253 goals, good for second all-time behind Chris Humbert, was not on hand to accept his hardware Saturday night at The Olympic Club’s lavish awards ceremony. He is fighting for a spot on the squad that will represent Greece this summer at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. Not only is he a three-time Cutino award winner, but Papanikolaou is also a three time NCAA Finals MVP—leading Cal to three straight national championships—and only the second-ever water polo athlete to be named a five-time ACWPC All-American. 

Sweeping the Cutino Awards—named for Peter J. Cutino, former University of California Berkeley and The Olympic Club coach who won 17 Water Polo Coach of the Year awards in leading the Cal men to eight NCAA National Championships—is a first for the Berkeley-based institution. A sweep is also a repeat of the 2018 ceremony, when Stanford—the Golden Bears’ bitterest rivals—won twice with Ben Hallock and Mackenzie Fischer taking top honors. Hallock will be in Paris in July with the American men while Fischer, whose sister Aria won a Cutino last year for Stanford, has moved on from national team play after winning gold with USA in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

In all, six programs have won male and female Cutino awards in the same year, with Stanford and USC each sweeping three times. But for the Cal Berkeley Golden Bears, this first time will always be the sweetest.

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