Digging deep to honor a fallen teammate

By Walter Villa

Caroline Found was more than just a volleyball star. She was a compassionate classmate who wouldn’t let a shy kid eat lunch alone. She was a mischievous student who once ordered pizza while serving detention for a minor infraction. She was a gregarious girl who made friends -- even of opposing players -- everywhere she went.

“Half the time, I couldn’t find her for pregame warm-ups because she was talking with the girls on the other team,” said Iowa City West High volleyball coach Kathy Bresnahan. “She was irreverent, funny and spontaneous. She was in with the popular crowd, and yet she embraced everyone.”

A 5-foot-10 setter, Found led West to its first state title in 2010 and was eager to repeat as a senior in 2011. But around 9:40 p.m. on Aug. 11, the 17-year-old was riding her moped home from a church youth meeting when she struck a curb and lost control. Found, who was not wearing a helmet, crashed into a tree and was killed upon impact, police said. “It still doesn’t seem real,” said Hannah Infelt, a senior middle blocker at West. “I’m still waiting for her to pop out and say it was a prank.”

Current and former players struggled with their emotions in the wake of the tragedy. West graduate Alli O’Deen, a freshman outside hitter for the University of Iowa, said she “fell to the ground and lost it” when she heard the news about her former teammate.

Two players called Bresnahan at 12:30 a.m. on Aug. 12 to break the news, and the coach says her phone rang nonstop for the next several hours. By 7 a.m., the team had gathered for practice -- only to find several hundred West students sobbing on the court in a darkened gym. Bresnahan invited them to share their favorite memories of their friend. Then they wrote letters to Found, which Bresnahan has kept in a sealed box.

“I just wrote ‘I love you’ over and over,” Infelt said. Later that morning, 100 of Found's friends walked hand-in-hand to the crash site. They hung a No. 9 jersey -- Found's now-retired number -- in the tree she struck, laid flowers and prayed. At the next day’s practice, the girls couldn’t jog more than half a lap before falling to the floor in tears. “The little time we practiced was spent ball-handling and not on any in-system plays,” Bresnahan said. “We didn’t want more reminders that we didn’t have our setter running the show.”

Four days after the accident, thousands attended the visitation for Found inside the West High gym, including several rival teams and the entire University of Iowa volleyball squad. Tragedy struck again when Ellyn Found -- Caroline’s mother -- died on Aug. 23. Ellyn, who had been suffering from pancreatic cancer since April, was 55. She was survived by her husband, Ernie, son Gregg, 25, and daughter Catharine, 22.

Infelt said she and her teammates tried to support the Found family as best they could. “But it was like they were giving us support,” Infelt said.

Ernie Found, whose voice still breaks when he speaks about Caroline and Ellyn, said he was happy to help because “running away from the situation wasn’t going to do any good.” He notes that Caroline shared many of her best qualities with her mother. “She was able to inspire people and bring them together,” said Ernie.

The West players were touched by the love shown by rival teams. Opponents wore bracelets or shirts that read “Live Like Line,” a nod to Found's nickname. A ritual developed in which the West players placed Found's shoes under an otherwise empty chair.

Senior Kelley Fliehler was made the setter. Three days before the crash, Found had moved into Fliehler's house so she could be closer to the hospital where her mother was being treated. “I was prepared to be strong for her when her mom passed away,” Fliehler said. “But I never expected anything to happen to Caroline.”

Then again, little of what happened this past season was expected. Despite missing their star setter and spiritual leader, the Women of Troy battled all the way to the state final on Nov. 12, where they faced another significant challenge in rival Iowa City High.

West lost the first two sets of the title match and faced another seemingly insurmountable deficit. “I was just hoping not to lose 3-0,” Bresnahan said. But the West players battled back to force a fifth set. Four times Iowa City took one-point leads -- including match point at 14-13 -- but missed a serve each time, reinforcing the notion that fate had intervened on West’s behalf. West had two failed match points of its own before senior Shelly Stumpff’s kill clinched the championship.

At the trophy ceremony, West players held up a portrait of Found. Fittingly, the song that played over the loudspeaker was “Sweet Caroline.”

“That was the perfect way to end the season, because she loved that song,” Fliehler said. “Winning state a second straight year made her dream come true. We did it for her. We felt like she was still with us.”