Cal’s Isabel Williams, Nikolaos Papanikolaou Sweep 2024 Cutino Awards

Cal swept the Cutino Awards on Saturday, as Isabel Williams was named the best female player in collegiate water polo this past season while Nikolaos Papanikolaou entered rarefied air by winning the men’s award for the third time.

Courtesy: Cal Athletics

ISABEL WILLIAMS

SAN FRANCISCO – Following a career year in which she led the nation’s top defense and took the California women’s water polo team to its second NCAA final ever, Isabel Williams was named the winner of the 2024 Peter J. Cutino Award Saturday night at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.

Williams – the Golden Bears’ second-ever Cutino Award finalist – is the first player in program history to win the award.

“It’s an honor to be considered among such a great legacy of those who’ve won this award in the past,” Williams said after accepting the award. “Thank you to the Cutino family, the Olympic Club, and USA Water Polo. I’m so grateful to be here and so honored to receive this award.”

The fifth-year goalkeeper started in every game during the 2024 season, setting the Golden Bears’ single-season saves record (326) after reaching double-digit saves in 23 of 26 games and leading Cal to a 19-7 overall record. She paced the MPSF with career highs of 12.5 saves per game and a .653 save percentage, earned three MPSF Player of the Week Awards, and her third consecutive All-MPSF First Team and ACWPC All-America selections.

“From the very beginning, I told Isabel how much she could mean to this program,” said Cal head coach and 2002 Cutino Award winner Coralie Simmons. “She’s delivered and has been instrumental with how we’ve approached all the years she’s been with us. She’s been through thick and thin, through all the crazy COVID years, and obviously this year really made a big mark on how we get to continue her legacy and our legacy moving forward.”

With her coaches and mother in attendance, Williams expressed her gratitude to all who aided her throughout her journey, from her earliest water polo playing days in her hometown of Severna Park, Maryland, to the moment she earned collegiate water polo’s top honor. She also gave heartfelt thank yous to her brother – who she called her greatest inspiration – and her parents.

“My mom earns the spot as the No. 1 supporter. 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,” Williams said. “Just being considered amongst the other nominees is a privilege. They are great players.”

On Apr. 26, in the second quarter of the Bears’ MPSF Quarterfinal matchup with San Jose State, Williams began the Bears’ postseason by moving to No. 1 all-time for career saves at Cal with her sixth penalty stop in five games. Two weeks later, she helped hold three straight opponents to season-low scoring outputs at the Cal-hosted NCAA Championship, averaging 14 saves per game and earning her first career NCAA All-Tournament Team honor.

With Williams anchoring the Bears’ deepest playoff run since 2011, Cal allowed a nation-best 6.8 goals per game, consistently holding the nation’s top teams well below their season averages. She ended the season with 885 career saves – 69 more than any other Bear goalkeeper.

“From top to bottom, seniors to the newbies, Isabel really corralled everyone from the fall to when we got to Greece in January. She 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,” Simmons said. “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. She played a key role in how we got to develop throughout the year.”

Williams won the award along with Cal men’s water polo’s Nikolaos Papanikolaou, who was unable to attend the ceremony. They are the sixth different pair of student-athletes to sweep the Cutino Awards for a single school.

“I really think it’s important that we continue to grow the sport of water polo,” Williams said as she concluded her acceptance speech. “There needs to be so much more representation, so that everyone can watch and envision themselves standing here. I’m just very excited to have this honor and be able to move forward and grow the sport of water polo.”

NIKOLAOS PAPANIKOLAOU

SAN FRANCISCO – After leading the California men’s water polo team to its 17th national title last fall, Nikolaos Papanikolaou was named the winner of the Peter J. Cutino Award – given annually to the top male and female player in NCAA water polo – for the third consecutive year Saturday.

Papanikolaou – one of two five-time ACWPC All-Americans in NCAA men’s water polo history – joins Tony Azevedo (Stanford, 2001-04) as the only players ever to win three Cutino Awards. He is the only Golden Bear to win the award more than once.

[Papanikolaou] obviously had one of the greatest careers ever at Berkeley in a storied program. I’ve said it before, I think he’s the best player that ever played at Cal,” Cal head coach Kirk Everist said. “He’s just an amazing athlete on both ends of the pool and has contributed so much to the program and the sport in America.”

By adding one more prestigious honor to his legendary list of accolades, Papanikolaou caps off a string of three-peats. He claimed his third consecutive national title, NCAA Championship MVP and ACWPC Player of the Year honors following the Bears’ 13-11 win over UCLA in the NCAA championship game last December.

“I think his mentality and patience this year were a little bit different,” Everist said. “We took some losses early. You see an athlete’s ability to deal with adversity and be in a position where we clearly weren’t the best team from September to November. He had different injuries that just kept happening, but his mentality in keeping the team going and his positivity and ability to believe that in the end we can put this whole thing together, that was unique to this year.”

During the 2023 season, Papanikolaou set a career high and led the nation with 95 drawn exclusions, including season highs of nine and 11 in the Bears’ final two NCAA Championship victories. With 43 goals last season, he brought his career total to 253, good for second in program history.

Papanikolaou, who signed with Greek water polo club Panathinaikos in January, was not present at the Cutino Awards ceremony, which took place Saturday evening at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. The Athens native is currently training for the 2024 Paris Olympics with the Greece National Team.

The night ended with Cal water polo sweeping the Cutino Awards for the first time, as Bear goalkeeper Isabel Williams won the award on the women’s side. Papanikolaou and Williams are the sixth pair of student-athletes to earn a Cutino Award sweep for a single school.

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