Nicolas Saveljic becomes 3rd male UCLA water polo player to win Peter J. Cutino Award
Graduate student attacker Nicolas Saveljic scored 37 goals in 16 games and led the nation in steals during the 2020 to 2021 season en route to becoming the third UCLA men’s water polo player to ever win the Peter J. Cutino Award. (Daily Bruin file photo)
By Kyle Boal
Sept. 7, 2021 1:43 p.m.
This post was updated Sept. 12 at 9:35 p.m.
Nicolas Saveljic attained the most prestigious award in collegiate water polo.
The UCLA men’s water polo graduate student attacker was named the 2020-2021 Peter J. Cutino Award winner on Sept. 2, which recognizes the best individual player in both the men’s and women’s teams each year. Saveljic, also the 2020 NCAA Player of the Year, was selected over finalists Jacob Mercep from USC and Nikolaos Papanikolaou from California.
“It’s something as an institution that we’re really proud of because, in the water polo world, that’s the equivalent of the Heisman Trophy,” said coach Adam Wright. “The Olympic Club has supported this award for a long time, named after the longtime (California) coach. It’s a massive honor.”
In his acceptance speech, Saveljic said he was appreciative of his family back home in Montenegro.
“My mom, Dijana, my role model, thank you for all the unconditional love and support you’ve given to me,” Savelijic said. “My sister, Silvana, my best friend, and the best older sister I could ever ask for. Thank you for setting the standards high and giving an example for me to follow along the way. … My father, Niša, for all the pre-game conversations. For long motivational talks after tough losses and games.”
Only the third male Bruin to ever earn the award, Saveljic was the first to do so since 2016, when goalkeeper Garrett Danner claimed the accolade after leading UCLA to a perfect 30-0 record and a national championship. Sean Kern won the first iteration of the prize in 1998 and is the only Bruin to win it twice, repeating in 1999.
Saveljic thanked his coaches, from Wright to the team psychologist, for helping him become who he is today.
“I can’t thank you guys enough for giving an opportunity to just an 18-year-old kid from Montenegro and giving him a chance to achieve his dreams at one of the most prestigious universities in the world,” Saveljic said. “Thank you for the given trust, and for always keeping me accountable. You have taught me the importance of commitment, selflessness and grit, which shaped the person I am today.”
During the reduced 16-game 2020-2021 season, Saveljic scored 37 goals, becoming the only First-Team All-American on the eventual national championship squad. The Montenegro native ranks sixth of all time in goals in Bruin history with 164 and needs 14 more to finish in the top three and surpass Kern, who finished with 177 career scores.
In addition to his offensive accomplishments, Saveljic ranks top five of all time for UCLA in steals with 107 in his career. He led the nation in steals in 2020 with 30, and has finished top two on the team in steals every year he’s suited up for the blue and gold.
“We always knew Nicolas was a really special player,” Wright said. “It took some time for him to change and evolve and to really trust himself and train the right way. And it’s a credit to him because about a year and a half ago, he made a serious shift. I mean, he was always a good player for us, but it went to a different level.”
The attacker scored eight goals and added an assist in UCLA’s first match against Stanford in 2020, leading his team to its first win over the Cardinal since 2018. The performance tied the all-time MPSF record for goals in a conference game.
“Nick is probably one of the best players I’ve ever played with,” said sophomore goalkeeper Garret Griggs. “It’s an honor to be able to play with him. From a team perspective, he’s one of our main leaders. Before games and meetings or anything, he’s leading us, he’s giving us advice, words of wisdom. He’s definitely one of the bigger reasons for our success over the past year, and hopefully for our success this year.”
When he first joined the team in 2017, Saveljic said he spoke little to no English. Now, studying to earn a graduate degree in transformative coaching and leadership and returning for a fifth and final season with the Bruins, the Cutino Award winner thanked his teammates for making UCLA feel like home.
“Thank you for always being there for me and for helping me feel at home since day one,” Saveljic said. “Thank you for always picking me up when I’m down on a daily basis and putting a smile on my face. Thank you for so many good stories and experiences. I’m excited to get it done with you guys one more time.”