Barry O’Dea was planning his own father’s funeral on a clear early-August evening last year when he heard that Wilson sophomore Camryn Krueger’s mother, Sarah, had died in a sudden accident.
O’Dea, who had taken the Wilson girls’ water polo head coaching position in early June, drove straight to the Krueger house in Seal Beach to offer his support. He wasn’t the first Bruin there.
“My teammates and best friends Brooke (Gruneisen) and Maegan (Simon) were already at my house when we got back from the hospital,” Krueger said. “And then everyone showed up.”
The entire Wilson girls’ water polo team spent the evening at the Krueger’s house, and decided to dedicate their upcoming season to the late Sarah Krueger. O’Dea also lost his mother while in high school, and quickly became a trusted mentor for his goalkeeper Krueger.
“It’s like growing up on fast forward,” O’Dea said. “You don’t have time to struggle, and you just have to keep pressing forward, because the moment you pause it all comes to a head.”
“It was awesome to connect with someone, and we connect on a totally different level,” Krueger said of O’Dea. “He’s like another father figure. Playing water polo this year has been an escape for me.”
Krueger speaks with a calm maturity not common for student athletes her age, and she’s stayed loyal to her team throughout a tumultuous year.
On Saturday, she was in goal to make 10 saves helping Wilson win its first girls’ water polo CIF-SS championship in school history, and the Bruins did it with the initials “SK” on the back of their suits.
“I know my mom was with me on Saturday, and we had a guardian angel watching over us.,” Krueger said. “She’s a big reason we won.”
Living With Loss
Sarah Krueger was hit by a car and died a few blocks from her home while using a Pacific Coast Highway crosswalk on August 11, 2017 in Seal Beach. She was a labor and delivery nurse at Long Beach Memorial, the same hospital she was transported to after the accident.
“We went to their house as soon as we heard, and it was rough for everyone,” Gruneisen said. “All we could do was love Camryn and her family, and be a shoulder to cry on. (The team) wanted to make sure she knew she had more family, and that we had her back everyday.”
The community also showed its support. Hundreds of people completed a tribute walk in Seal Beach a week after Sarah’s death.
“My dad had a tough time, but he’s handled it the best way he can,” Krueger said. “I have an older sister and a younger brother, and he’s made sure we got counseling right away. We got support from everyone.”
The same was true when Krueger’s grandfather, Larry Sr., passed away in December. His funeral was scheduled for the same day as Wilson’s CIF quarterfinal game against Corona Santiago earlier this month. Krueger had a meeting with O’Dea and the Wilson administration that week where they gave her all of her options.
“I wasn’t going to miss that game for anything, and that’s not what my grandfather would have wanted me to do,” Krueger said. “I couldn’t let my team down. They’re my family too.”
After a back-and-forth quarterfinal at Santiago, Gruneisen drilled the game-winning goal from the middle of the pool at the final buzzer.
“Everything we’ve been though this year has bonded us and contributed to how close this team is,” Gruneisen said. “Together we’ve been pushed to limits we didn’t know we could reach, and I’ve got 11 new family members.”
“There’s absolutely no drama with this team,” O’Dea said. “That’s not common.”
Krueger said the support of her team made her a better goalkeeper, and that she could also feel the support of her mother during the CIF-SS Division 3 championship game.
“I cried during the National Anthem because she would’ve been so proud,” Krueger said. “I’ve gotten nervous in big games before, but I think she’s helped me be more confident in front of big crowds. She was with us in that pool.”
Wilson led Harvard Westlake 5-4 late in the third quarter when the Wolverines earned a 5-meter penalty shot.
“Before the shot I just asked my mom to help me,” Krueger said. “And I think she did.”
Krueger lifted herself out of the water as the shot came in, and she reached back down with her right hand to make the save.
“In my 22 years of coaching I’ve never seen anything like what she has overcome and accomplished this season,” O’Dea said of Krueger. “It’s unbelievable.”
All Too Familiar
This has been an emotional year for the entire Wilson aquatics program. Last May, Wilson coach and elementary school teacher, Latham Bell, died in a car accident near PCH.
“There’s been a lot of bonding and helping each other,” Wilson swimming coach Eric Berg said. “Lots of crying and hugging,”
Bell was on the way to a Wilson boys’ swim meet, where the Bruins pulled off a 30-point turnaround to win a state-record 45th consecutive Moore League swim championship, the longest-ever streak in any sport in California.
“Latham had a booming voice and a huge heart that he dedicated to the Wilson aquatics community,” said Wilson water polo coach Jeff Nesmith.
Despite still being a new member of the Wilson aquatics family, O’Dea didn’t shy away from using the program’s history to help his team this season. The Bruins have sent a representative to every Summer Olympic Games since 1952, and 16 of those 29 Olympians were swimmers, divers or water polo players. O’Dea won a CIF title at Corona del Mar in 2010, and said he was just trying to create what he had seen Wilson do for all of these years.
“It’s an honor to be a part of this tradition,” O’Dea said. “It’s crazy how deep the roots run in this community, and it’s a lot of responsibility. I wanted to reinvigorate this program by pumping the tradition big time.”
Gruneisen is very familiar with that history. Almost her entire family went to Wilson, and the campus pool is named after her great uncle, Bob Gruneisen, who passed away in 2012.
“It’s an absolute honor to be under the Gruneisen name and hopefully carry on the legacy,” Gruneisen said.
Before Wilson left for the championship game on Saturday, O’Dea brought his team to the gymnasium to took at the banners on the walls. He also invited Wilson alum and water polo Olympian Lauren Wenger to speak to the girls.
“She was a phenomenal, calm voice,” O’Dea said. “I mean her name is on the wall of the gym, and that really resinated with the team. That’s what tradition looks like. At that point, you’ve got no choice but to go win.”
LISTEN to interviews with Wilson coaches and players from Saturday.
The Long Beach Wilson girls’ water polo team won its first CIF championship in school history on Saturday, and we have exclusive postgame interviews. Visit The562.org for more Long Beach sports coverage!