IOWA CITY — You’d never know it now, but there was a day in which competition turned the tummy of a young Shelly Stumpff.
“Her first softball tournament — she was about 9 years old — she was complaining of stomachaches,” recalled her father, Charlie Stumpff. “Her sisters were ready to go, but she couldn’t play, she was so nervous.”
“I was so scared,” Stumpff said. “I was just watching the ball. I wasn’t going to swing.”
Shelly Stumpff battled through the stomachaches. She continues to work through heartbreak.
Ten months after her friend and teammate Caroline Found was killed in a moped accident, the emotion of the loss still is raw.
“You didn’t realize just how special she was when she was here,” Stumpff said during a recent interview outside West High School, her voice shaky and her eyes moist. “I wish I had told her. She was a great person.”
Stumpff honored Found by delivering on her friend’s prediction — that the Women of Troy would repeat as state volleyball champions. Then she followed that by helping West claim a title in basketball.
Today, she is honored as the 2012 Gazette Female Athlete of the Year. She won in unanimous fashion.
“She absolutely blossomed this year,” West volleyball coach Kathy Bresnahan said. “Before this year, she was an athlete. This year, she became a volleyball player, and she took our team on her back.”
A 6-foot outside hitter, Stumpff will continue her volleyball career at Wingate (N.C.) University, an NCAA Division-II program that posted a 32-1 mark last season.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do without her here,” said Shelly’s mother, Kathy Stumpff. “She’s been so busy. It’s been very hectic, but so much fun.”
Shelly – her given name is Michelle Ann Stumpff, but “I’ve gone by Shelly since I was in preschool, and it stuck,” she said — is the last of three daughters born to Charlie and Kathy.
The youngest, and the tallest.
“My sisters (Jennifer and Emily) are 5-5 and 5-8 with dark skin. I’m 6 foot and pale,” Stumpff said. “The doctor said I would be 5-8, but I just kept growing.”
“Shelly always had a lot of potential,” Bresnahan said. “To go from where she was a year ago to now, that was a huge change. A year ago, she might break down on the sideline after making a mistake.”
Now, if she goofs, she generally laughs it off.
“Shelly was the glue that held us together,” West basketball coach B.J. Mayer said. “She never let us get too down.
“Sometimes she drove us coaches nuts, but you learn to deal with it. But you know what? It’s a game. It’s supposed to be fun.”
Stumpff has been around sports all her life — Charlie is the head varsity coach at West. She got started with backyard Wiffleball games, then graduated on to those stomachache-inducing youth softball leagues.
With experience came success, and with success came more confidence. That has brought out Stumpff’s silly side.
“I don’t like being serious. I like having a good time and making the best of the situation,” she said. “Coaching me, it would be fun at times. At times, it wouldn’t be so fun.”
Said her father: “She’s high-energy, and that can be a little challenging at times. But in general, she’s a good kid.”
Sports are about winning and losing. They are not life and death.
Stumpff has dealt with life and death.
On the night of Aug. 11, 2011, she and teammate Kelley Fliehler were waiting to hear from Found, the setter of the volleyball team, who had been returning home on her moped from a youth church group event.
Around 11:20 p.m., a worrying Stumpff received a call. Found had lost control and hit a tree. She was killed on impact.
“I sat in my bed, completely shocked,” Stumpff said. “Then I screamed out for my parents. I called Kelley right away. I will never forget that night. About 2 or 3 in the morning, I called (Bresnahan). She thought I was messing with her.”
About two weeks after Found died, the Women of Troy began their season. Fliehler was picked to take Found’s place as the setter.
“When we got going again and I was the setter, Shelly took me aside and said, ‘I will be the one to help you. I will put the ball down,’ ” Fliehler said.
West lost two of three matches at the MVC-MAC challenge, then gradually found its groove. Stumpff was the top offensive weapon, and took over Found’s role as prankster.
“Grief manifests itself in different ways in different people. In volleyball season, Shelly took on Caroline’s personality. She was a screwball,” Bresnahan said.
One day, Stumpff went into the bleachers and laid down to hide from the coaches. Her punishment: she had to come down and watch her team run sprints.
“(Bresnahan) wouldn’t let me run with them, and that was worse than running would have been,” Stumpff said.
The team adopted black warmup shirts in Found’s honor. On the front, in block letters: “REMEMBER US … ” On the back, Found’s number (9) and a nickname in which Found had bestowed on each girl.
Stumpff’s nickname: Icy Hot.
“Can’t go into that,” Stumpff said. “It’s an interesting story, though.”
Every day, every practice brought different emotions.
“At practices, we’d be weeping or we’d be goofy as heck,” Bresnahan said. “Shelly kept it loose. But during matches, her intensity was unbelievable.”
West returned to the state tournament, at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena. The Women of Troy blitzed Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln in the first round, then outlasted Cedar Rapids Kennedy in a five-game semifinal.
In the championship match, City High pushed the Women of Troy into a two-set hole. But West rallied and forced a dramatic fifth game.
“Honestly, after the second game, we weren’t a bit shaken,” Stumpff said. “We knew we could pull it to a five-game match.”
On five occasions late in Game 5, City High held a one-point lead, including match point at 14-13. Each time, the Little Hawks missed a serve.
Eventually, the Women of Troy made them pay, and Stumpff’s kill clinched the match, 18-16.
Two days later, she was at basketball practice. And another title pursuit was under way.
West breezed through a 20-1 regular season (including 16-0 in the Mississippi Valley Conference), then faced a third-quarter deficit in the regional finals before battling past Muscatine.
At state, West held off City High in the quarterfinals then overcame a sluggish first half to beat Waukee in the semis. The Women of Troy reached the title game, a step in which they had fallen to Des Moines East in 2011.
West led Ankeny through most of the game, then Maddie Manning pushed the Hawkettes into the lead. But Tatum Klein hit a late 3-pointer to force overtime, Manning fouled out and the Women of Troy prevailed, 61-56.
Stumpff scored 16 points in the final.
“She was capable of that,” Mayer said. “Usually, it was more like eight points and eight rebounds. That was good enough as long as we won.”
Besides, much of Stumpff’s focus was on defense. As a junior, she was called on to guard the likes of Kiah Stokes (Linn-Mar), Virginia Johnson (City High) and Tia Dawson (Cedar Rapids Washington), all of which became Division-I players.
“I love a challenge, but that was a real challenge,” Stumpff said.
These days, she and her softball teammates are trying to tear down one more obstacle. West has never advanced to the state softball tournament, but this year’s team is ranked No. 2 in Class 5A and owned a 24-3 record at midweek.
Stumpff was batting .405 with a team-high 36 RBIs and is 7-0 in the pitching circle.
No more stomachaches. No more unwillingness to swing the bat.
“She has helped elevate our program, no doubt about that,” said West softball coach Jeff Kelley. “She’s a great leader. Her teammates have a tremendous amount of respect for her.
“To have the combination of physical skills and leadership that Shelly has, you don’t see that very often.”
Should her team win a softball championship, Stumpff will join elite company at West. Nate Kaeding won three titles (football, basketball, soccer) during the 1999-2000 school year.
Three-sport athletes don’t come around every day any more at the big-school level, and elite three-sport athletes are a rare jewel.
“To do what she does, she’s a throwback,” Bresnahan said.
It never crossed Stumpff’s mind to cross a sport off her list.
“Never,” she said. “I love my teammates too much.”
Stumpff paused to collect her emotions.
“One thing I have to add: I owe so much to my teammates and my coaches,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for better people to be around these last few years.”
SHELLY STUMPFF, at a glance
Name: Michelle Ann Stumpff
School: Iowa City West
Birthdate: Nov. 12, 1993
Family: Father, Charlie; mother, Kathy; sisters, Jennifer and Emily
High school career: A key figure in three state championships — two in volleyball and one in basketball. Earned Elite all-state honors — she was the Class 4A player of the year — as the Women of Troy concluded a bittersweet volleyball season with their second straight title. Averaged 3.57 kills per game (.299 kill efficiency). A three-year starter in basketball, she helped the Women of Troy to the peak in 2012 (netting 8.6 points and 6.0 rebounds per game) after finishing second in 2011. A two-time all-MVC first-team softball player who will finish with five softball letters.
College plans: Will play volleyball at Wingate (N.C.) University. Undecided on major.
2012 Gazette Female Athlete of the Year, B.J. Mayer, Basketball, Caroline Found, Charlie Stumpff, Iowa City West, Jeff Kelley, Kathy Bresnahan, Kathy Stumpff, Kelley Fliehler, Shelly Stumpff, Softball, Volleyball