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Originally published December 24, 2012 at 8:02 PM | Page modified December 24, 2012 at 8:35 PM

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Kentlake star Carson Stowell plays to honor memory of his sister

Carson Stowell, a sophomore who is the leading scorer for Kentlake, wears No. 21, just like his sister Carly did. Carly Stowell, who led Kentlake to the state tournament as a freshman, died of arrhythmia in April 2007, five days shy of her 15th birthday.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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KENT — Number 21 paces behind the free-throw line, then rocks back and forth from heel to toe.

Gangly arms drape each side before hands impatiently slide to the back of the hips, eager to grip the basketball.

In the stands, a mother's breath is taken away, her heart strings tugged.

He looks so much like Carly, she thinks with tears in her eyes.

Another 16-year-old boy might cringe at the comparison. But not Carson Stowell, the player shooting free throws. He knows he has more of Carly in him than cool-water blue eyes and sandy-blond hair. They shared far greater things than lanky body types and ritualistic mannerisms on the basketball court.

And Carson misses her.

He was just 10 years old when his only sister died of arrhythmia in April 2007, five days shy of her 15th birthday. Like most others who knew her, Carson believes Carly was destined to do grand things in life, particularly in basketball and music, her biggest passions.

Her unexpected death came on the eve of a national AAU tournament in North Carolina, a few weeks after she led Kentlake High School to the state tournament as a freshman.

Carly's life was cut far too short, so Carson intends to honor her in his. That's why he wears her number for the Falcons.

"It seems like it's unfinished," said Carson, a sophomore wise beyond his years and the team's leading scorer. "It needed to be worn in her honor. I knew she would have done great things wearing her jersey and it just never happened, and somebody had to finish it."

So that is Carson's mission — one that included a crusade for new Kentlake basketball uniforms this season because there was no jersey No. 21.

Carly Stowell was a gifted girl who excelled in all phases of her life, a prodigal child who exuded energy and assurance, caring and compassion that drew countless friends. But she particularly loved spending time with her two brothers, Eason (now 18 and a college freshman) and Carson.

She created goofy games for them to play and they happily went along, even if they didn't quite understand them. They are among the memories Carson clings to.

"She was super-awesome with me and Eason both," he said. "We all got along."

It's a tightly knit family that shares Carly's love of music and sports. Carson plays trombone and Eason the trumpet. Dad Chuck is the head of the Kentlake music department and director of the pep band, a constant at basketball games. Mom Elena, a former volleyball player, met Chuck when both taught at Kent-Meridian High School and started coaching girls basketball together.

Chuck had long ago chosen the name he wanted for a daughter, Carly Dawn (his family calls him Charlie Don). When a son followed, his name was linked to Elena, as in E's son. Carson wound up being a hybrid of Carly and Eason — so no wonder there seems to be so much of her in him.

Carly and Elena were extremely close — Elena was the habitual team mom, deeply entwined in her daughter's world. Hers fell apart after Carly died in her arms in that North Carolina hotel room.

Carson not only lost his sister, but for a while his mom as she was all but paralyzed by her grief, barely able to go through the motions of daily living. Elena cried incessantly and Carson didn't know what to say, so most times he said nothing.

For a while, it was torturous to watch basketball, even her son's games. So she did little of it, especially in the Kentlake gym, where Carly's uniform hangs on a wall.

But through counseling and a newfound love of Jiu jitsu, where she is excelling, Elena is engaged in life again and back in the stands more often. She even wrote a book published last summer, "Flowing with the Go, A Jiu-Jitsu Journey of the Soul," where she details working through the grief — a journey that is far from complete.

In one passage, she writes "Watching Carson play ball does Déjà vu with my heart," because he reminds her so much of Carly.

Scott Simmons, the girls coach at Kentlake who still sometimes wears shoes with "21" on them, sees the resemblances, too.

"I very much see a lot of Carly in Carson in the way he plays, and who he is as a person," said Simmons, who set up an annual Carly Stowell Invitational the year she died.

Carson and Eason have played AAU basketball for Jammin' — teams sponsored by the Carly Stowell Foundation created by her parents. They both wore No. 21, unless they were on the same team. Then Eason got 21 and Carson took 22.

Both made the Kentlake varsity last season. But with no uniform No. 21, Eason wore 22 and Carson 34.

When Godfrey Drake took over as coach this season, Carson — the only returning player with varsity experience — told him about his desire to wear 21 in honor of his sister. Drake was willing to order one, but the cost for one uniform was nearly half of the $1,600 it would cost to outfit the entire team through another vendor. So he asked the booster club to splurge for a new set, even though the existing uniforms probably would have lasted another year or two.

Carson's wish came true.

"It was important to all of us because it was important to him," Drake said.

Carson admits it's daunting at times trying to follow in Carly's footsteps.

"It's hard to live up to what she already did," he said. "She never got to finish it. That's why I feel I need to finish what she could have done. She had such a big future, I don't know how to follow it."

Inspiration comes from the No. 21 on his uniform, and the "21" he writes on his basketball shoes with a heart.

"When I look down at it, it's just a reminder that Carly would probably be working hard right now if these were her shoes," he said.

And it drives Carson to try to finish his life the way Carly started hers.

Sandy Ringer: 206-718-1512 or sringer@seattletimes.com

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