Every day after practice, Iowa City West’s girls volleyball coach Kathy Bresnahan went home and took notes about which drills worked and which fell flat. Particularly effective ones were highlighted by a giant star in the margin. By the end of a season, Bresnahan could fill entire notebooks with her musings.
But a week into the 2011 season, her notes started to take a very different form. That was when West’s star setter and emotional leader, Caroline Found, died in a moped accident, and 12 days later, Caroline’s mother Ellyn, who had been active in the community and with the team, lost her battle with pancreatic cancer.
The team was devastated.
“There was no sense in writing about our practices because they were just useless,” Bresnahan said, “so I started going home every night and writing up the emotions that we were going through.”
Those notes proved to be extremely valuable a few years later when Bresnahan wrote a book about Caroline and that 2011 team, titled The Miracle Season. And now a Hollywood movie by the same name hits theaters April 6, starring Academy Award-winners Helen Hunt and William Hurt.
It all started with something akin to a kid sending a letter to Santa Claus.
At the end of the 2011 season, overcome with emotion and filled with pride for her players who had somehow managed to come together in the face of tragedy and win a second-consecutive state championship, Coach Brez, as she is fondly known by her players, wrote a long letter to the legendary sportswriter Frank DeFord, telling him the story of Caroline Found and the 2011 Iowa City West girls’ volleyball team.
Without knowing the exact address, Bresnahan sent it to Frank Deford, Time Warner, New York City. She didn’t expect it to ever get to him, but the act of writing it was therapeutic.
But by some miracle, the letter made it to Deford and he responded. He couldn’t write the story himself, he said. He had lost a daughter to cystic fibrosis at age 8, and it would be too painful. But he was involved with Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel on HBO, and he suggested they feature the story there instead.
The resulting 15-minute piece caught the eye of a number of people in Hollywood, and soon after the Real Sports piece aired in the fall of 2012, the Found family and Coach Brez had people flying in from California, “trying to do a little dance for us,” said Bresnahan.
At the time, only a year or so after her death, Caroline’s father, Ernie Found, and Bresnahan weren’t ready for reopen their wounds for the sake of a movie. But one group, LD Entertainment, played the long game, reaching out every few months saying they respected their decision but if they ever changed their minds, they were still interested.
Eventually, Bresnahan and her former players started hearing rumors that some people who weren’t directly connected to the team or the Found family were planning on writing about Caroline and the 2011 season, and that didn’t sit well.
“The girls and I said, ‘If anybody is going to tell this story it should be us,’ ” Bresnahan said.
So Bresnahan started the book. She worked on it for a year on her own before hiring writing coach Mary Allen to help her whip the book into shape, the same way Bresnahan had been whipping young volleyball players into shape for 20-plus years. Although the final draft was finished a couple years ago, the book was released this February to more closely align with the movie debut.
Volleyball doesn’t have an iconic feel-good movie.
Hockey has Miracle; baseball has Field of Dreams and Bull Durham, The Natural, Moneyball; football has Rudy, Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights and a countless others; and there’s basketball’s Hoosiers. Feeble attempts have been made to capture the essence of volleyball on the silver screen, but none have been particularly well-received, either by film critics or the volleyball community.
The first hurdle for director Sean McNamara to cross in hopes of creating volleyball’s classic sports movie was casting. It won’t come as a surprise that talented young actresses with elite volleyball experience were few and far between.
“The challenge for me was finding actors who could play volleyball, because you don’t want for a second for people to think that it doesn’t look right,” McNamara said. “At first, I was thinking I could teach people to play volleyball, and I quickly realized that you can’t teach people that quickly to be great at a sport.”
The solution turned out to casting based on acting ability for the leading roles — with Danika Yarosh playing Caroline Found and Erin Moriarty portraying Kelly, the player who takes over the setting position — then finding some actors with volleyball experience for the roles with a limited number of lines.
Then McNamara filled out the rest of the team with what he calls the “full kick-butt volleyball players.”
Once the characters had been cast, McNamara handed them off to Claire Hanna, a Canadian national-team libero, who was hired to serve as volleyball coach and choreographer for the film. (Former USA national-teamer Kim Glass fulfilled the same role during the portion of the movie that was filmed in Los Angeles)
Hanna knew she didn’t have time to make these teenagers with little-to-no volleyball experience into state-champion volleyball players, but she had to make them good enough to fake it on camera.
“I didn’t really care about the outcome of the ball, whether it was set out to the power hitter or fell in between middle and power, because we could slow that down in Hollywood,” Hanna said. “But what we couldn’t change was how their hand position and body looked in a slo-mo scene.”
The actors playing the West team members weren’t the only ones who needed coaching.
Hanna also helped Hunt learn to walk and talk the role of a volleyball coach. Hunt, who admitted that she has no hands-on experience with volleyball, but loves watching the sport every four years in the Olympics, sat stoically on the bench the first day of filming. Hanna told her to get up, walk around, get right up to the edge of the court and encourage the players with lines like, “Close the block,” “Move your feet,” “Reach higher,” things that to a volleyball player seem obvious, but were a foreign language to an actress.
Hunt also took full advantage of the opportunity to learn from Bresnahan herself. Hunt had her diction coach call Bresnahan and talk to him on the phone for hours so Hunt could get the high school coach’s way of speaking just right.
“Can you get this Wisconsin accent down?” Bresnahan joked. “You gotta drag your Rs and whatever. Say ‘warsh,’ I guess.” Hunt also asked Bresnahan to send video of her walking.
“She just so immersed herself in the role,” Bresnahan said of Hunt. “I think she really got what it means to be a coach with a team.”
When you see The Miracle Season, you’ll have to suspend disbelief about the ability of this particular group of girls to win an Iowa state championship. As volleyball people, you won’t be able to resist making snide remarks about some of the awkward serves and flailing one-arm dig attempts.
Even Bresnahan admits that Moriarty never really got the setting technique down.
“But how do you throw someone who has never been an athlete into that setter role?” Bresnahan asked, admitting that the 23-year-old actress was assigned a tough gig. “I think volleyball fans are going to love it if they can get past the couple of shots with Erin setting.”
So don’t let the mediocre volleyball technique ruin it for you, because there’s a lot more to this film than just West’s wins and losses on the way to back-to-back state titles. For the more authentic volleyball story, read Bresnahan’s book, which contains specific details from matches and practices and will more than satisfy your inner volleyball nerd.
That season, Coach Brez was tasked with the impossible: Find a way to help her players cope with the loss of their teammate and friend.
McNamara has experience telling these sorts of heart-wrenching true sports stories. He wrote and directed Soul Surfer, which tells the story of Bethany Hamilton, who lost an arm in a shark attack but makes a triumphant return to competitive surfing; and Hoovey, the true story of a promising young basketball player, who discovers he has a brain tumor and faces a long road to recovery and a return to the basketball court after surgery.
“Ultimately, (a good sports movie) has to be visceral,” McNamara said. “We have to feel like we’re there with the players. And it has to have heart–something more than just the sport has to happen.”
Each of the actors and actresses in the film spoke with the real-life person they were portraying, and many of them got to know Caroline’s father, Ernie Found, who is played by Hurt. For Hunt, the cooperation of Bresnahan turned out to be invaluable.
“(Bresnahan) came and spent time with me in L.A.,” Hunt said. “And (she) had a big, giant open heart, which she has anyway, and she told me what a seemingly impossible task it was to show up at practice that first day when these girls had been so shattered, and what it was like to feel your way through trying to help them get back on their feet.”
Even on fake volleyball teams, competing in staged matches, special bonds are created between teammates, something Hunt and the other actors in The Miracle Season experienced first-hand.
“What I didn’t really know until Coach Brez pointed it out to me is just in the way the huddle happens before each point, (volleyball) is a particularly rich team sport,” Hunt said, “and women’s volleyball in particular is just punctuated by support for each other, so that’s pretty incredible.”
The women portraying the West High players felt that support and that bond, and are now best friends, with some of the actors even getting ready to be in one teammate’s upcoming wedding.
Bresnahan has big expectations and high hopes for the movie, not only because it honors the life of an incredible young woman who meant a lot to her personally and to many people in the Iowa City community, but also because it celebrates strong female athletes who almost never get portrayed in Hollywood films.
“I’m hoping that the volleyball community gets out and supports the movie, and that women athletes do,” Bresnahan said.
“If we want more movies about us, we’ve got to get out there and support it, no matter what the sport is.”
The publisher has set up a discount on the book for the volleyball community. Use promo code PREPVB to get a 20-percent discount (hardbound edition only)when ordering at KCISports.