Former Mater Dei water polo star Jon Walters, who as a freshman helped USC capture the NCAA title last month, died of a heart attack Wednesday at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana, his father, Bill Walters, confirmed.
Walters, 19, fell into a coma Jan. 1 and had been hospitalized since, battling pneumonia and kidney failure, his father said. Bill Walters said his son showed signs of improvement, being able to walk Friday, but died Wednesday afternoon.
“We're absolutely devastated,” Bill Walters said. “Even the doctors can't believe it.”
The cause of death is still being investigated by the Orange County Sheriff's Coroner Division, said Supervising Deputy Coroner Mitch Sigal.
The news of Walters' death rocked the tight-knit water polo community.
“It's an unbelievable, devastating loss for the Mater Dei water polo community,” Mater Dei coach Chris Segesman said in a text message. “We all have broken hearts.”
The muscular center with broad shoulders was viewed as a potential Olympian for a U.S. national team emphasizing younger players under new coach Dejan Udovicic. Walters progressed to the U.S. junior team while at Mater Dei.
“There's no doubt in my mind that he would have (been an Olympian),” said Petar Asic, who coached Walters as an age-group player. “What is there to say? (It's a) tragedy.”
Walters overcame an elbow injury in the middle of the season to score 17 goals this past season for USC, helping the Trojans claim a record sixth consecutive NCAA title. Walters scored two goals in the NCAA semifinals and two in the MPSF championship game.
“Jon was a warrior, tough, honest, (a) great teammate, easy to get along with,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said in a text message. “I loved coaching him and spending time with him outside the water. I will miss him tremendously.”
Walters dominated high school competition at Mater Dei. Routinely referred to as a “beast” by opponents, he was the Register's player of the year in 2012 after leading Mater Dei to the CIF-Southern Section Division 1 championship as a senior.
Water polo was a family affair for the Walters. He helped Mater Dei finish undefeated in 2012 and 2011, playing both seasons with his brother, James, who is one grade younger. His mother, Jacque, served as Mater Dei's statistician.
Walters played his freshman season at Newport Harbor before transferring to Mater Dei in a move that helped the Monarchs become a powerhouse.
The high-profile transfer was determined to be athletically motivated by the state CIF and Walters was ruled ineligible for his sophomore season. The transfer case stayed in the spotlight as Mater Dei was part of a lawsuit against the Southern Section, alleging unfair treatment of Mater Dei athletes. The case was eventually settled.
Asic said Walters' strong work ethic pushed him to become a standout. He said Walters was a “round” and “short” youngster whose tenacity helped him develop into a “rising star.”
"(He) was an awesome kid," Asic said. "I've been crying all afternoon."