BERKELEY, Calif. - UC Berkeley has one of the most successful colligate water polo programs in the country. The university has won 15 national championships, their latest came just last season.
This year, the team is on a quest to win another. But, their secret weapon isn't much of a secret anymore, Nikolaos Papanikolalou was officially named the best player in the country last season.
Papanikolalou's road to success forced him leave his friends and family in Athens, Greece and come to the U.S. — sight unseen.
"Its like a basketball player that's 6’10 or 6’11 but has the athletic skills of a 6’4 point guard," said Kirk Everist, Berkeley's head men's water polo coach. "He has great hands is very fast not just for a big guy he's just fast. He does the most things really well of anyone that I've coached."
Garrett Dunn, Papanikolalou's teammate and roommate, described him as a physical "specimen."
"When he started shooting, he was shooting from the perimeter better than any shooter I had seen in person.," said Dunn.
Papanikolalou, or "Papa" as his teammates call him, got a late start in water polo.
"I started at nine or 10 years-old," said Papanikolalou. "Most kids start at five."
Papanikolalou said as a kid, he was far from the best. But a growth spurt coupled with hard work led Papanikolalou to make a name for himself. He was named junior world MVP when he led the Greek National Team to gold medal at the 2018 Youth World Championships.
"I had seen him at junior worlds, and we talked about if he would be interested in coming to the states at that point he said no," said Everist.
Papanikolalou changed his mind not long after that conversation. But, having never left Europe, he knew living in California would be a big adjustment.
"To be honest, I couldn't really speak English very well," said Papanikolalou. "I wasn't confident, I was tired too, that added to the pressure I was feeling."
But, Papanikolalou knew he would have to rise to the occasion of playing for a program rich in winning tradition.
"Our expectation is that we all understand that this has been building for years and years," said Everist. "There's a difference between a team and a program. A program has been going on since 1969."
Last year, Papanikolalou rose to the occasion, leading Berkeley to their 15th national title. He was named ACWPC National Player of the Year, MPSF Player of the Year, and MVP of the NCAA championship.
"I remember when I blocked the final shot and I saw the clock running out I just realized we had won," said Papanikolalou. "I turn to my right I felt so happy."
After the season, Papanikolalou was awarded the prestigious Cutino Award, given to the best player in the country, all of that while playing the most physically demanding position in the pool.
"He plays the center position," said Everist. "If you don't know, and you watch you're like why is that guy getting murdered for the entire game."
But, not even that stopped him from racking up and MPSF high of 68 goals and 35 steals last season. Now, Papanikolalou says his sights are on another championship.
"The goal for this year is obviously to repeat a second ring, this is what we've been training for," said Papanikolalou. "This is what we all want."
Papa has two more years of eligibility left. But water polo isn't like playing college football or basketball. There is no professional league in the states. So, the economics major whose getting a minor in data science says when he graduates, he’ll either leave the sport behind to get a full-time job in the Bay Area, or he’ll return home to Europe and continue playing the game he loves at the pro-level.