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Iowa City West’s 2011 ‘Miracle Season’ was even more dramatic than Hollywood portrayed
10 years ago, the Trojans completed an emotional run to a state volleyball championship
IOWA CITY — She wrote the book. But she won’t read the book.
“I just can’t,” Kathy Bresnahan said. “And I can’t watch the movie. It’s still a raw thing.”
The retired volleyball coach at Iowa City West, Bresnahan authored “The Miracle Season,” the story of Caroline Found’s tragic death in 2011 and West’s run to a state championship later that fall.
Ten years? Has it really been 10 years?
“It feels like it was just the other day, but it also feels like it was another life,” said Kelley Fliehler, now 27 years old and a physician’s assistant at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Like Fliehler (Found’s reluctant successor at setter), Shelly Stumpff was a senior on that 2011 team. She’s in her sixth year as an assistant coach at the University of South Dakota.
“We’ll have recruits on campus for visits, and every now and then their parents will ask what that season was like,” Stumpff said.
Even the Hollywood script paled to reality.
The setter of West’s 2010 championship team, Found died at 17 when her moped crashed along Mormon Trek Road in Coralville on Aug. 11, 2011.
She was on her way to visit her mother at the hospital; Ellyn Found would die a few days later of pancreatic cancer.
Caroline was quirky, silly, goofy. And uncommonly caring.
“Line and me, we were a couple of knuckleheads together,” Stumpff said. “She was the most mature immature person you’ll ever meet.
“Caroline had the gift of letting everybody know that she cared about them, even the kids on the margins,” Bresnahan said.
A few days before her death, Found boasted to then-athletics director Marv Reiland that West would win another state championship.
Less than a week later, Bresnahan stood behind a casket and eulogized her setter.
Her final words: “Number 9, we will make you proud.”
The Trojans soon returned to practice. A volleyball team without a setter is a football team without a quarterback.
“I didn’t want to do it,” Fliehler said. “My first thought was that I couldn’t fill Caroline’s shoes, and I didn’t want to try. It felt like a lot of pressure, and I didn’t want to let Caroline down.”
“We knew that Kelley had pretty good hands,” Stumpff said. “Being older, she was game-ready. We needed her in that role.”
Every practice brought a new challenge. Psyches were fragile, and rare was the day that there wasn’t a stoppage in which somebody needed to leave the gym.
“Those first two weeks, people were in and out of the gym,” Stumpff said. “If you had to leave, you left, no questions asked.”
West opened the season at the MVC-MAC Challenge at Cedar Rapids Prairie. The Trojans won one match and lost two.
The results weren’t memorable, but this was:
“Earlier that day, we had Ellyn’s memorial service,” said Ernie Found, Caroline’s father.
“I got (to the gym) right at the beginning of the match. They saw me, and I saw them. Everything kind of stopped. It’s a moment frozen in my mind.
“It was a big positive step for me, and for them. We all just had to keep going.”
Ernie didn’t miss a match all season. He was there for the Battle of the Spike — West at Iowa City High — and after the Trojans won in four sets, players rushed to Ernie at the top of the bleachers and hugged him as he held the trophy above his head.
“The girls emotionally were all over the map. They needed something they could hold on to,” he said. “Being there at their matches, it helped me out a lot too, it gave me a little extra purpose.”
One of the inaccuracies about the movie was that West lost match after match after match.
In reality, Fliehler gained confidence in her expanded role, and the Trojans found their footing.
But it was never smooth, and though Bresnahan never said it at the time, she was always fearful that the house of cards would collapse.
“There was no point during the season that I thought we were going to win a state championship,” she said. “Even when we were racking up wins, if we were at a tournament, we’d just barely get through pool play, then we’d find an overdrive.
“I kept waiting for the wheels to come off, then we’d be done. I was waiting for us to collapse, but the girls refused.”
The Trojans and the West student body — wearing blue “Live Like Line” T-shirts — fed off each other. “Sweet Caroline,” the song by Neil Diamond, became a postmatch staple.
Something special was happening.
“We wanted to play for her,” Stumpff said. “But more importantly, we wanted to play like her.”
West won the Mississippi Valley Conference tournament, its fourth consecutive title, and took a 35-6 record into the postseason.
Straight-set regional victories over Des Moines Roosevelt and Cedar Rapids Washington sent the Trojans back to the state tournament, which was being held that year at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena while the U.S. Cellular Center (now Alliant Energy PowerHouse) underwent post-flood renovation.
West swept Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln in the quarterfinals, then outlasted Cedar Rapids Kennedy in a five-set semifinal.
The championship-match opponent? Iowa City High, which shot to a two-sets-to-none advantage.
As the Trojans huddled before Game 3, one of their more reserved players spoke up.
“Hannah Infelt was a quiet kid, but she picked her spots,” Bresnahan said. “When we were down 2-0 to City, she said, ‘This is ridiculous. This is unacceptable. Now we have to go out and win the next three.’”
West won the next two, 25-16 and 25-15, and led 9-6 in the fifth.
City High scored the next three points, and it was tied at 9-9 and 10-10.
And then, the Little Hawks missed five of their next six serves, including one leading 14-13.
“Watching that final match … it doesn’t make sense that we could have won that without intervention from Caroline and Ellyn,” Fliehler said.
West eventually won 17-15 on a kill by Stumpff.
“When we were down two sets, I’ve never seen a team so calm,” said Stumpff, the 2012 Gazette Female Athlete of the Year. “We had this belief. We got this far, and we weren’t going to lose.
“We were going to go five, and we were going to win it.”
A mixture of emotions enveloped the Trojans in their postmatch pileup under the net. Joy. Loss. Relief. Guilt.
“It was a matter of 15 people saying we’re doing this together,” Bresnahan said. “It shows that one mindset can achieve the impossible.”
The players from the 2011 title team are scattered across the country now. According to Bresnahan, Infelt is an engineer, Caroline Hartman is a pharmacist, Anna Pashkova is in the dietary nutrition and medicine field, Olivia Fairfield is in the military.
Two players from that team are married, at least one is engaged.
Bresnahan was the national high school coach of the year in 2011. She retired after the 2014 season.
“I truly wanted to step down after (2011), because I had nothing left,” she said.
She wrote the book, was involved in the movie and keeps busy with her speaking engagements throughout the Midwest.
Ernie Found is retired from his practice as an orthopedic surgeon. He spends most of his time in Iowa, maybe three months of the year in New Hampshire.
It was in New Hampshire, at the Cathedral of the Pines, that Ernie and Ellyn were married. It was there that all three of their children were baptized.
And at a site nearby at which Ellyn and Caroline are buried.
West announced shortly after Caroline’s death that uniform No. 9 will never be issued again. Her jersey was formally retired this fall.
Through Caroline’s death, Bresnahan softened.
“I started to show players more how much I cared,” she said. “We would tell each other we loved them. That’s something I never would have done before.
“I guess it made me more aware of kindness.”
Ernie was asked what he thought Caroline would be doing today if she were still alive.
“You know, I think about that a lot,” he said. “She would have played college volleyball. She’d want to be hanging out with her friends a lot. She would be actively working with a program like Big Brothers/Big Sisters or Best Buddies.
“She’d be happy. She’d be making other people happy.”
“It struck me, it’s been 10 years. I know her spirit is still there. It’s comforting. I miss her dearly, but I know she had an impact, and she still does.”
She still does for Fliehler.
“How much she has impacted me in the last 10 years, I can’t put it into words,” she said. “Every high school has its cliques. But she included everybody, and she did it flawlessly.
“She helped bring me out of my shell. I was this shy kid, and she brought me into her friend group. The confidence she helped instill in me, it changed the trajectory of my life.”