Gene's Blog: West High's year of medals and mettle
December 23, 2012
Iowa City West was stunned and tested in summer 2011 with the sudden death of Caroline Found.
The world of sports has been compared to a playground or a toy department. In our culture, sports are a haven from life’s hassles and headaches.
Part of their appeal? Sports are not life and death.
Except, that is, when sports are life and death.
Tommie freshman Hannah Infelt experienced both extremes in 2011-12 as a high school senior. Her volleyball team shed some tears of joy but many more tears of sadness.
Sixteen months later, the two gut-wrenching losses still seem unreal. What is real is the pressure a team faced and overcame, the bonding and achievement of a school and community, and the start of a long healing process.
This story is set in the idyllic college town of Iowa City, Iowa, an unlikely place for heartache. Most of the city’s high school and university students are in no hurry to leap into full adulthood. With its tailgating, sports and concerts, Iowa City is a place, like a Rod Stewart song, to feel Forever Young.
West High’s Class of 2012 didn’t get a slow and smooth sendoff into their college years. That’s one of the downsides.
The upsides? These classmates faced a nightmare and came away stronger and wiser. They’re part of a tight-knit team, a tight-knit class who share the tragedy and memory of Caroline Found.
Everybody's Best Friend
You may have heard about this unique girl -- a setter in volleyball, a uniter in the school hallways -- Iowa City’s “Sweet Caroline.”
West High’s fall 2011 season will be remembered as one of mettle and medals. After the many emotions began to calm, West’s volleyball coach wrote a letter to sports journalist Frank Deford. Coach Kathy Bresnahan thought Caroline’s impact deserved a good storyteller.
A nationally-acclaimed writer, Deford’s byline has appeared in Sports Illustrated for 50 years. He also produces TV features for HBO’s Real Sports. Deford receives countless story ideas and pitches. Few subjects intrigue him enough for him to depart LaGuardia and touchdown at a place like the Cedar Rapids airport for a rare journey into the world of girls’ high school athletics.
Deford has made a living finding the best stories. Yet sometimes, the best stories find him.
At Christmas 2012, a time when we pause and momentarily reflect on life and blessings, it seems appropriate to share Caroline’s legacy, and our Hannah Infelt’s mature perspective.
PHOTO: Caroline Found
As a junior setter for Iowa City West’s 2010 state champion volleyball team, the youngest daughter of Ernie and Ellyn Found was the igniter, the one who put others in position to score and shine. Caroline’s leadership and charisma were not limited to the volleyball court.
Friends say Caroline, if the situation called, would be the hardest worker. “She had the type of mentality that after a practice, she’d ask coach to make it harder next time,” said Infelt, who’s now an Engineering major at St. Thomas and a member of the unbeaten 2012 junior-varsity volleyball team.
When levity was needed, though, the free-spirit and class clown in Caroline surfaced.
PHOTO: Caroline Found and Hannah Infelt.
“She definitely had the personality,” said Infelt. “She was a prankster, a goofball. Once she had an in-school suspension, and she ordered a pizza and had it delivered.”
In a high school with so many diverse consonants, Caroline was a vowel, the element that linked different groups and created harmony.
“She was very outgoing, and went out of her way to include people,” Infelt said. “She had so many different groups of friends. Everyone felt like they were her best friend.”
Caroline loved life, even if she did dislike her given name. She insisted on be called “Liner” or “Line.”
After Ellyn Found was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2011, Caroline designed purple T-shirts that read “Team Ellyn.” She distributed them to her friends. That summer before senior year was supposed to be a fun and carefree stretch for Caroline. But her mother’s illness made it difficult.
Infelt recalls a team camp the volleyball girls attended on the day Ellyn Found underwent surgery.
“Things weren’t going well,” Infelt said. “Coach Bresnahan told her ‘Let me take you home.’ ‘Line stayed up all night on the phone with her dad. We were encouraging her to go be with her family. She just said ‘I’m not leaving.’ She had that dedication to our volleyball team.”
Ellyn was like everyone’s mom, and the Found residence was a gathering spot to many teenagers. “Ellyn was a genuine, caring person,” Infelt said. “That’s where ‘Line got it from.” ‘Line always placed people before herself. You wouldn’t know on the outside she was having hard times during her mom’s illness. It was only a few days before that she realized that she was going to lose her.”
On a Thursday night just before the start of her senior volleyball season, Caroline borrowed a friend’s moped to visit her mother in the hospital. On the drive home, without a helmet, she lost control, hit a tree and suffered a fatal head injury. Just like that, the 17-year-old Caroline was gone.
A bed-ridden Ellyn Found collected the strength to walk in and out of the church for her daughter’s funeral. Twelve days later, Ellyn passed away.
The pain and grief continued. In that same span, West High freshman Raymone Bryant perished in a fire.
How to Move Forward?
Burdened with shock and sadness, the West High Women of Troy had to figure out how to play a volleyball season and live their senior year.
“The accident was on a Thursday night,” Infelt recalled. “On Friday we all found out. We had a big meeting in the gym, a lot of parents and students came together. The seniors had sleepovers every night at first. None of us could be alone.
“Two days after the accident, even before the funeral and visitation, our coach called a practice. That was hard going back into the gym. That was the last place we’d seen her. This was her spot. This is where she’s supposed to be setting. The idea of going in seemed impossible. The gym almost seemed haunted.”
West volleyball, the state runner-up in 2009 and winner of the school’s first state championship in 2010, had a more immediate goal in 2011: getting through each day.
Caroline’s visitation and funeral brought an outpouring of community support, plus prayer and encouragement from volleyball teams across the state. “People stood in line for hours just to get into the gym,” Infelt said. “People who knew Caroline from club volleyball showed up. That was definitely a rough day. There are only so many times you can answer the question, ‘How are you doing with this?’ “
Infelt recalls the words of a teammate, who said, “I just don’t want to cry on the court. She wouldn’t have wanted that.” Players were told that if emotions ever got the best of them, they could leave the floor, breathe, and collect themselves. West practiced the first couple of weeks in a smaller gym in the back of the building as the initial memories were overwhelming.
The coach picked a new setter. The team carried on. The adults advised against making the 2011 season a mission to play for Caroline. They suggested to “play for each other.” But the stubborn West players understood their calling. “Let’s be real,” Infelt said. “We were playing for her.”
And play they did. With Line’s volleyball shoes parked under a chair on the bench and her spirit everywhere, West channeled its emotions into a positive force. The team surpassed even their coach’s expectations and advanced to the state tournament.
Infelt said that some of Caroline’s best memories were her trips to state volleyball as a varsity member in 2009 and 2010. “That’s was she lived for,” Infelt said. “A hundred days before state tournament she was counting down. It was weird being there without her. It was definitely a source of motivation.”
Along the way, the West student body joined in. Blue was Line’s favorite color, and blue T-shirts popped up in her memory that read “Live Like ‘Line.” At every match and even at football games, the Trojan faithful sang Neal Diamond’s song from 40 years earlier: Sweet Caroline.
West made it all the way to the state finals where it faced crosstown rival City High. After West fell behind 2-0 in the best-of-five set title match, it appeared the storybook finish wasn’t to be.
“Losing didn’t seem like an option,” Infelt recalled. “We were down 2-0. Our coach told us later, ‘I was nervous, I just didn’t want you guys to get swept in three.’ The seniors got together and said, ‘We’re going to do this.’ We stepped it up.”
West clawed back into the match and tied it 2-2. “The (deciding) fifth game was close,” Infelt said. “City missed so many serves, you just sensed that ‘Line was present, having some kind of influence. It was like she was there. Her dad had a picture of Ellyn and ‘Line and brought it down to the bench.”
City was one point from victory at 14-13 but couldn’t close out the match. This moment, this season belonged to Caroline’s team. West finished an incredible comeback to win the state title. There were tears, and that old Neal Diamond song. Good times never seemed so good, especially after something so sad.
“Winning was very bittersweet,” Infelt said. “Obviously, to win state, back-to-back was special. But if we could take back what happened to her that summer, we would in a heartbeat.”
Of West’s two state championships, Infelt reflected: “Junior year, we played because we loved volleyball,” she said. “Senior year, we played because we loved ‘Line.”
Deford’s HBO report on the team and the tragedies aired nationally last October on the monthly, 60-minute show, and included a couple of short responses by Hannah and her friends. It was yet another part of the process of celebrating and grieving Caroline’s life and death.
St. Thomas junior soccer player Kit Weaver is best friends with Hannah’s brother Jared. Kit has looked out for Hannah this year, and he invited her to his apartment to watch the HBO story so she wouldn’t see it alone.
“I thought the story was done extremely well, and I’m glad the story can be shared,” Infelt explained. “At times it was hard to watch, and it was weird to see yourself on TV. To watch Ernie and to see those video clips brought back a lot of memories.”
Infelt shared the lessons of the sudden loss of a teammate and friend.
“I think we learned that you need to take advantage of the time you have,” Infelt said. “If you care about people, you need to let them know. There’s not time to be fake or superficial. Be yourself, and be grateful for what you have. In my senior year, that was drilled into us.
“This was definitely a life-changing event for so many. Things get better over time, but they are never the same. Looking back, I liked my senior year. It brought my class so much closer together. Those experiences give us a bond others can’t relate to. Ernie, and Caroline’s siblings Gregg and Catharine, are amazing. I still keep in touch. They are role models for us. Whenever we see Ernie he gives us a big hug. I hug him back just as tight.”
They’ll never forget Caroline Found. On the volleyball court, her West High number has been retired. Off the court, she’s inspired others to “Live like ‘Line.” A park bench in downtown Iowa City was painted with that motto by family and friends.
“Her No. 9 number been retired at our high school,” Infelt said. “I don’t think anyone would pick it, anyway. I don’t think anyone could live up to it.”