By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Menlo School grad Kim Krueger, who spent her formative years in Hawaii, met Kim Hall when both were in the seventh grade. Five years later they were reunited at Stanford.
Amber Oland grew up in Southern California and has a pair of former teammates (Grace Reynolds and Noel Umphrey) playing for UCLA. Kruger and Bruins' senior Megan Burmeister were teammates with the Knights.
Such is the women's water polo community, where it is not unusual to find yourself playing against a best friend or with a former opponent.
"It's such a small community that it allows for continuing interaction," Stanford coach John Tanner said. "There is intense competition but once the game is over, they have such great respect for each that relationships exist beyond the pool."
That's the case again this weekend when top-ranked Stanford (23-0) looks to strengthen its resume as a national title-contender at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament, which begins Friday at San Jose State with a 1:30 p.m. match against eighth-seeded Arizona State (11-12).
If Stanford continues to win, it will play for the championship Sunday at 3 p.m.
There are four games scheduled each day. The winner earns the automatic berth into the NCAA tournament, to be held at Michigan. Other teams remain in contention for at-large berths.
Second-seeded California (21-4) opens the tournament at 10 a.m. Friday against seventh-seeded San Diego State (20-12). Third-seeded Hawaii (17-7) and the sixth-seeded Spartans (20-11) follow at 11:30 a.m. Fourth-seeded UCLA (22-5) and fifth-seeded USC (16-5) follow the Stanford match.
Tickets are $15 daily for adults and $5 for students and children. All-session passes are also available for $35 and $15. For more information contact the Spartan Ticket Office at 408-924-7589.
For Krueger, Oland and Hall, it's the last go around. The seniors take a career record of 102-12 into Friday's opener. They've finished third at the NCAA tournament twice and reached the national championship game last year, losing to USC, 10-9. The only thing missing is a national title.
"That was hard on all of us to lose that game," Oland said. "It was a disappointing end but we didn't want to lose sight of what we accomplished. We did focus on getting back to that point."
The Cardinal seems built for the future, although the 2012 Olympics may disrupt Stanford's continuity.
Junior Melissa Seidemann and sophomore Annika Dries played for the U.S. National Team last year and likely will be invited to return once the college season is over. Former UCLA coach Adam Krikorian heads the national women's program, and he is familiar with all the Pac-10 teams.
If that's the case, then the future is now.
"This has been a special year," Krueger said. "It goes by so fast I can't believe it's the last time for everything. I find myself savoring everything. Winning a championship would be the cherry on top of a fantastic four years and even without that championship you realize you are doing something special."
Oland and Krueger were both thrown into the mix as freshmen, and both responded. They were both named to the MPSF All-Freshman Team and Oland earned MPSF Newcomer of the Year honors. Kruger led all freshmen with 19 goals.
"I was definitely nervous getting thrown into everything my freshman year," Oland said. "I felt prepared from high school and playing with the national team but it was totally different than I expected."
Oland, also an All-American pick, and Hall were the only goalkeepers on a team that finished third in the nation.
"Amber has a great feel for the game," Tanner said. "She is thoughtful about water polo and could probably coach. She understands what the team is trying to do and she knows the offense more than she needs."
Hall appeared in 14 games as a freshman, making three starts.
"You can't give more to a team than she does," Tanner said. "She is an incredible team member who works on her game every day and pays attention to the finest detail."
Hall was awarded the 'Warrior Award' for her efforts in the weight room.
One of Krueger's first experiences at Stanford was as a member of a Hawaiian club team in town for the Junior Olympics. They practiced with the Stanford water polo club team and she was introduced to Kyle Utsumi, for whom she wound up playing at Menlo School and who has been a volunteer assistant coach at Stanford all four of her years.
"I've been playing for him for as long as I've lived in California," Krueger said. "He's the first person I met here."
Krueger and Burmeister helped Menlo win three Central Coast Section titles.
Krueger, who hopes to be part of Stanford's 101st NCAA title, wrote a piece on Stanford grad, three-time Olympian and current Castilleja coach Brenda Villa for the 'Voices of Champions' section of Stanford's special online tribute to 100 NCAA titles at http://champions.stanford.edu/.
"It's amazing what people have accomplished here," Krueger said. "I am just so grateful to experience college in this way, and to see it through special lenses that make it all unique. I know a lot of the girls have joined sororities. I never did. I feel like I have one here. I can't say enough about the relationships I've developed and enjoyed."