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NORMAL — The therapy of choice for members of the Normal West High School girls basketball team on Thursday was being together. 

Crabtree, 72, of Normal, was killed on Wednesday when the school bus transporting him and a Normal West freshman girls team crashed head-on with a semitrailer truck heading the wrong way on Interstate 74 near Downs. The truck driver, Ryan E. Hute, 34 of Delmar, Iowa, also died. 

Coach Corey Ostling said Crabtree would have loved watching the Wildcats challenge reigning Class 3A state champion Peoria Richwoods, the state’s No. 1-ranked team, at West on Thursday. 

“It was tough to play, but we talked to Charlie’s wife and she said, ‘You’ve got to play this game,’” said Ostling, whose team observed a pre-game moment of silence in Crabtree’s honor before falling to the Lady Knights, 62-30, in front of a loud Pack-the-Place crowd. 

“You need something to latch onto. I told the players I got my strength from them. I needed something. My buddy (assistant coach) Steve Price is in the hospital and we lost Charlie. We didn’t play great basketball tonight, but I told them it doesn’t really matter.”

Normal West (6-2, 2-1) also honored Crabtree, a retiree from Country Financial, by not replacing him with another in-game announcer. His spot at the scorer’s table was decorated with an Air Force hat and shirt reflecting his military service.

Arriving fans, who were greeted with a sign announcing free admission, walked past a table of flowers and plants sent from sympathizers.

“Last night, all I could do was go through all the text messages (from Crabtree),” Ostling said. “When we played (Normal) Community (and won), he sent a text and said, ‘What an extravaganza. He talked about how hard work paid off.’ He knows hard work paid off because he was in the gym with them.” 

A favorite memory for Ostling came during a practice last year that wasn’t going well. To get the players’ attention, Ostling had them running. Crabtree came in mid-practice with his trademark shout of ‘Hey Wildcats!’ Instantly, everyone started laughing. The whole mood changed.

“I said, ‘What am I going to do now? I can’t be mad anymore.’ That was Charlie,” said Ostling. 

Richwoods (10-0, 4-0) bolted to a 7-0 lead before the Wildcats, as if aided from above, scrambled back for an 11-10 lead after one quarter. 

“We played so hard for him (Crabtree),” said West guard Olivia Demosthenes, who finished with a team-high 15 points. “We were totally playing this for Charlie. I just feel such a strong bond with my team. 

“I’ve never seen anything like this crowd. I’ve never played in front of such a huge crowd before. I loved it.”

In the second quarter, the Knights pulled away as 6-foot-1 Marquette recruit Camryn Taylor sped off to a 24-point, nine-rebound night. 

West was still within 41-29 after three quarters before Richwoods scored the first 13 points of the final period. The Knights forced a running clock for the seventh time this season when Taylor’s 3-pointer ended the scoring with 2:24 left. 

Richwoods also received 13 points from Nia Williams and 12 from Jaida McCloud. During pregame ceremonies, players locked arms at halfcourt with each Knight standing between two Wildcats. 

“It’s been an emotional 24 hours for them more than us,” said Richwoods coach Todd Hursey. “We feel it. I had three starters that were really having a hard time with it. 

“Even though you don’t know them (the deceased) personally, they’re in our conference family. Our kids have been affected by something similar and that brings back those emotions. I told them it’s therapeutic to get out there and do this.” 

West guard Whitney Bozarth knew what Hursey meant. 

“I feel like when we play basketball, it takes away a lot of the stress of the day,” she said. “It was the love for the game. We’ve never had that many people here before. Just knowing that so many people support us is really good. He was like family to us.” 

After the final buzzer, players and fans lingered on the court, reluctant to leave the togetherness.

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Contact Randy Sharer at (309) 820-3405. Follow him on Twitter: @PG_sharer

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Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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