Chelsea Gross has been an assistant girls basketball coach for Normal West while teaching junior high P.E. across town at Normal Chiddix in her first year.
On Wednesday, Dec. 5, she was scheduled to accompany the junior varsity B team, made up of mainly freshmen, on a trip to Champaign.
The day before, however, West head coach Corey Ostling asked Gross to stay behind for the varsity’s practice in preparation for the Wildcats’ upcoming game with No. 1-ranked and defending 3A state champs Peoria Richwoods.
“He said he wanted another set of eyes, so I stayed back with him,” Gross said.
The Wildcats JV team played their game in Champaign. On the way back, not far from home, tragedy hit.
The team bus was hit head-on by a wrong-way semi-truck on I-74. The driver of the semi and beloved team statistician Charlie Crabtree, 72, were killed.
West coach Steve Price and the school bus driver were both injured and hospitalized in Peoria. All eight of the girls were shaken up, but thankfully all survived the horrific event.
“It was definitely hard to swallow. That’s my team, my girls. (I was) supposed to be there. I guess everything happens for a reason,” Gross said.
She tries not to think about what the consequences could have been had she been sitting on the bus near the front where coaches normally do.
“Especially with the injures that my freshman coach has been going through, made me thankful, but it does scare me a little bit to think about it,” she said.
Gross said it was nothing short of a God thing she was not on the bus.
Freshman coach Steve Price has been released from the hospital, Gross said, is recovering at home and doing a lot better.
While one girl suffered broken bones that will keep her out for the rest of the season, and others were concussed and received minor injuries, Gross said their biggest recovery has been emotionally.
“We have a few who are starting to return, but the mentality of getting on a big bus again, has been a slower process getting those girls kind back in a routine,” she said. “It has been a big impact on the girls emotionally as well as physically.”
Gross said West has receive a “ton of support and love,” not only from the West community, but from all the schools they’ve played since the accident.
“We went to Limestone, and the JV girls welcomed us with basket of gifts and cards of sympathy. We had one team send over a huge banner they signed,’ Gross said. “Everyone came together for the girls, and it was really, really impressive to see.”
The Wildcats were deeply saddened with the death of Crabtree, who will be sorely missed.
“He had a special place in his heart for basketball at West. It was always uplifting to see Charlie, and he was always cheering us on,” Gross said.
Ostling said that Gross, a two-time First Team All-BCR pick at LaMoille (2008 and 2009) who played at Monmouth College, has been a natural fit at Normal West since Day 1.
“Her fun-loving and easy-going personality allows her to instantly connect with both coaches and players alike,” he said. “Her primary goal is to help the kids develop on and off the court and cares about the kids’ well-being first and basketball second. The kids love her. She has a great energy about her, and the players feed off it.”
Ostling said Gross has had a lot more on her plate since the accident and being down a coach.
“Coach Gross has jumped right in and been exactly what we needed,” he said. “We are so incredibly lucky that we found her. What a great role model for our players.”
Gross, who also coached eighth-grade basketball at Chiddix, has gained a great appreciation of what her dad, Dick, did, whom she played for at LaMoille.
“Now that I’m a basketball coach, I see how much patience and time it takes,” Gross said. “Definitely see what kind of sacrifices he had to make to be a coach. Don’t take that for granted anymore.”
And if she ever needs any advice, she knows where to call.
“I call home, and he always has some advice and inspiration for me,” Gross said.
Kevin Hieronymus is the BCR Sports Editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.