Carly Wopat feels sister's spirit

Continuing to play volleyball last season helped Carly Wopat move ahead following the loss of her twin sister Sam, who died in April 2012 eight days after a suicide attempt. Kelley L Cox/Icon SMI

STANFORD -- Before some of Stanford's volleyball matches last season, Carly Wopat would share a brief, private moment with her mother. Kathy Wopat, who grew up in Honolulu, would pass along the same Hawaiian phrase each time: "Imua maluhia koa."

"It means 'Move forward, peaceful warrior,'" Carly said. "I like that, because that's how I like to think of myself. I'm a very competitive person. My whole team, we are warriors out there, but there's a calmness you should have. And every time we stepped out on the court, we were moving forward."

The Cardinal begin a new season on Aug. 30 as one of the top teams in the nation, but a year ago, it can be easily argued that there was no program in the country dealing with more.

In March 2012, Carly's twin sister, Samantha (aka Sam) -- also a member of the Cardinal volleyball team -- attempted suicide. She was admitted to Stanford Hospital and died eight days later. She was 19 years old.

Sam and Carly Wopat, who grew up in Santa Barbara, Calif., came to Stanford as two of the top prep volleyball recruits in the nation. They began playing together in middle school when a teacher started up an after-school program, and they led their Dos Pueblos High School team to the Southern California Division 1A title by their senior year.

Sam's death, a loss so profound, so devastating, still leaves Carly unable to explain her feelings more than a year later.

"It's very complex," Carly said, haltingly, trying to gather her thoughts. "There are a lot of things going on in my mind. It's kind of too difficult to describe."

Carly said she never considered not continuing to play volleyball, and she, her family and the Stanford program grieved through the spring, summer and into the fall season.

"Through the whole thing, my one steady thing was volleyball," Carly said. "I knew I had to keep playing for myself and for Sam. It makes me happy. If I wasn't playing, I don't know what I'd be doing."

In the days after Sam's death, Stanford athletes from every sport decorated a tree outside Maples Pavilion with ribbons, cards and mementos. Memorial services were held on campus and in Santa Barbara. The Cardinal team dedicated the 2012 season to Sam, left her spot in the locker room intact and wore her initials on their uniforms.

"Losing Sam was extremely hard for our team," said senior Rachel Williams. "But we stayed together to help each other heal."

And Carly moved forward.

A 6-foot-2 middle blocker, Carly had the best season of her collegiate career as a junior. She was a first-team All-American and led the powerful Pac-12 in hitting percentage (.399) and was third in blocks (1.45 per set).

"She is an amazingly strong person to have done what she did last year," said Stanford coach John Dunning. "When I look at her, I shake my head, and I marvel at her strength."

Like Carly, Dunning has trouble finding the words for what his program experienced last season in the aftermath of Sam's death.

"It's pretty much indescribable," Dunning said. "I'm so proud of how everyone rallied and wrapped our arms around each other to do the best we could. But it's an unimaginable thing and the effect it has on everyone ... it's not possible to overstate it."

Dunning said everyone in his program was impacted deeply. They worked hard to respond to Carly and her family and the things they needed.

"All everybody wanted to do was help," Dunning said. "Everyone around just wanted to know what they could do."

Carly, meanwhile, wanted her sister to be a part of the season. She told her teammates that they should feel free to talk about her when they thought of a happy memory. She wanted her sister's spirit to make the team stronger.

"I was happy and sad at the same time sometimes -- bittersweet is a good way to describe it," Carly said. "My teammates supported me even when they couldn't understand the things I was feeling. I tried to explain it to them the best I could because I wanted to keep things open."

As the 2013 season begins, the Cardinal -- who have appeared in the top 10 of every preseason poll since 1996 -- are ranked No. 3 in the nation and were picked by the Pac-12 coaches to win in an always-difficult conference, which includes USC, Oregon, UCLA and Cal.

Stanford's sights are firmly set on a trip to the NCAA final four in Seattle in December.

And Carly, one of 11 returners to the Cardinal squad, is just as committed as ever to pursuing the passion that she and her sister shared.

"This is a different season," Carly said. "It's a new season, and you can start clean and make whatever you want of it."

Kathy Wopat sat in the stands during one game last season with an old family friend who watched Carly play and then told Kathy, "Carly has 'mana.'"

"It means 'spirit'," Carly said. "Throughout the season, I would say the word to myself when I was out on the court. It's just to check in, I guess.

"I feel like whenever I walk out on the court, Sam is there with me in spirit and that makes me better."