The future seemed bright for the girls in the West High School volleyball team from Iowa City, Iowa.
After capturing the state title in 2011, they were ready to take on the feat of a rare back-to-back win the following year. Leading the team was Caroline Found, an energetic, lively and kind high school senior who was friendly with everyone in town.
But tragedy struck on August 11, 2011 when the 17-year-old lost control of her moped on her way home from a church event and died in an accident. Her sudden death left her community stunned as they struggled to cope with the news.
Now, the inspiring and heartbreaking story is reaching the hearts of moviegoers with The Miracle Season — a tear-jerking retelling playing in theaters. Starring Helen Hunt as Kathy Bresnahan, the tough coach turned lifelong best friend to the team, the movie follows the teenage girls as they attempt to deal with the grief of losing their star player while also trying to win a repeat title.
The Miracle Season
The real life Bresnahan, whose friends call her Bres, says she knew instantly that the only way the team was going to survive that season was by sticking together.
“That morning we just met with the team,” Bresnahan tells PEOPLE of the morning after the accident. “I thought we had to grieve together initially. We all went into the gym where the lights were off, and it was so bizarre because once my eyes adjusted to light, I realized there were hundreds of kids that showed up that morning for a 6 o’clock in the morning volleyball practice.”
And she was right. One of Caroline’s best friends on the team Kelley Fliehler tells PEOPLE that having her teammates around her is how she survived the grief.
“There were six of us that were inseparable from the day of the accident,” remembers Fliehler, played by Erin Moriarty in the film. “We went to each other’s houses every night and slept over. We carried each other through and those six are still my best friends to this day. The only reason any of us survived was just having each other to get through it. In real life, we are all six as important to the success of the team and even in life now, really.”
Caroline’s death affected everyone in the community so deeply because of the shining and compassionate person she was. Her father Ernie Found, a doctor who never missed one of the team’s games, says his youngest daughter just had gift for making people smile.
“Caroline as a person was someone who just loved life and loved to be friendly,” he says. “Loved to have friends, loved to make other people feel better, loved to put smiles on faces.”
Losing her was devastating for the team’s players, who had to not only deal with the tragedy, but also completely change their strategy to win. Since Caroline was a setter, she was integral to every play on the court. And in a twist of fate the movie hinges on, Fliehler was the one that took on that role.
“I absolutely refused to play setter when Bres first asked, I didn’t want to take Caroline spot,” Fliehler recalls. “If my teammates hadn’t told me that that’s what Caroline would’ve wanted, I would’ve never done it.”
Ernie Found with the cast of The Miracle Season
With Fliehler as setter and Ernie in the stands cheering them on, Bresnahan says they found a way to play through the grief: “You look at his strong, grieving, kind face in the bleachers and you think, ‘My god, if he can do this, how can we not do it? How can we not move forward when Ernie is putting everything on the line to be here for us?'”
The team eventually made it to finals where they beat their rivals to claim a second consecutive title. For everyone involved, the joy of winning was eclipsed by the relief they felt at finally realizing they made it through.
“Two tons came off my shoulders,” Bresnahan says of the moment they won and she fell to her knees. “I felt totally responsible for getting them to the point where they could at least be in a position to win, and it didn’t look like we were going to. I remember feeling such a relief. We did it for her, we did for our community, we got through this somehow.”
Helen Hunt and Kathy Bresnahan
“One hundred percent I felt relief,” Fliehler echoes. “Bres always told us to make sure we were playing with Caroline and not for her, but that’s easier said than done. I don’t think we realized how much pressure we put on ourselves to win for her, and if we had come up short it would’ve been devastating.”
But they did it, and the team celebrated with a framed picture of Caroline and Ernie in the stands cheering them on. Years later, and with Hollywood recreating their unlikely story of triumph in the face of adversity, Fliehler says Caroline’s “will to live” is one of the things she remembers most about her best friend.
“She lived more in 17 years than most of us will our entire lives,” she says. “She just wanted to have a smile on her face every day and give everything her all.”
Ernie hopes telling his daughter’s story helps people deal with their own sadness and grief.
“We’re all confronted with tragedy, or extreme sadness and loss,” he says. “We have choices as to how we move on from there, and choosing to allow your heart to be mended slowly with others who are also struggling can be very gratifying. That’s really the only way to do it in the long run.”
The Miracle Season is now out in theaters.