Bill Bean walked in to the East Clinton High School gym Monday night like he’s done a thousand times in the past.
Off to the side on the first night of official practice for girls basketball at EC, varsity head coach Jeff Craycraft was talking with a player. When the conversation was over, Craycraft walked over to Bean, the reserve coach, offered a fist bump and said, “Here we go again, brother.”
A couple hours later, practice ended and the two went their separate ways.
Twelve hours later, Bean was getting a text from East Clinton athletic director Jim Marsh that Craycraft had passed away.
“It’s hard to put anything in to words,” Bean told the Wilmington News Journal Tuesday afternoon. “How in the world … how do the kids … My head’s been spinning all morning.”
Craycraft, a 1976 graduate of Greeneview High School, died Tuesday morning. He was preparing for his fourth season as head coach of the Lady Astros, a season he had been looking forward to for many months.
“We just talked Thursday night,” said Allen Wilkinson, who played softball with and against Craycraft. “He was so excited about the way things were going and turning things around there.”
Craycraft became head coach in 2017. A committee made up of people in the East Clinton community decided Craycraft was a good choice to take over the program, board member Tim Starkey said. The board agreed with the community’s decision.
“I’ve known him since we were about 8 years old,” said Starkey, who also has the softball connection with Craycraft. “My parents and his parents worked at NCR for years. I’ve known him as a friend, a brother, a coach, a teammate … it’s devastating. I’m still shocked for words.”
Before becoming head coach, Craycraft was for 16 years an assistant coach at various stops. Most recently, he was a varsity assistant at East Clinton while Steven Gerber was the head coach.
“When he joined my staff at EC I had no idea what to expect,” Gerber said in a post on Facebook. “All I knew was that I was getting someone with more knowledge of the game (of) basketball than I’ll ever know, a fiery competitor and a hell of a coach. What I didn’t know I was getting was a man who would become one of my really close friends and a mentor in life as well as coaching.”
Gerber and Craycraft worked two years together then Gerber resigned.
“I knew the kids and program would be in the best of hands with coach Craycraft,” said Gerber, who is coaching now at Clinton-Massie. “He was one of the first people to congratulate me when I started coaching again at Clinton-Massie. I am so grateful for the opportunity to call him my friend.”
Wilkinson said Craycraft was always willing to help when it came to basketball.
“He loved coaching,” Wilkinson said. “He made a difference in kids’ lives. He cared about the kids so much and it wasn’t just about the kids he coached. I was blessed to play (softball) with him. I was blessed to have him coach my sons. He was a great teammate, a great coach. It’s hard to believe (he’s gone).”
Marsh said the current East Clinton players were told of Craycraft’s passing shortly after arriving at school Tuesday by varsity assistant coach Jerrica Stackhouse.
“Instant cries and heartache,” said Stackhouse. “It’s so hard to see so many kids that you love and care for, and (yet) can’t take that hurt away.
“Jeff is more than a basketball coach to these young ladies. You can’t prepare (yourself) to tell your athletes that they have lost their biggest fan.”
In addition to prayers for the Craycraft’s family, Stackhouse said, “Jeff told the girls at practice (Monday night), ‘I’ve coached many teams. I’ve never had this much talent in one gym.’ He was beyond excited to get this season underway.”
And the Lady Astros program will get through this, knowing their coach is right there with them ever step of the way.
“I tell you, this will be Jeff’s team,” Marsh said firmly. “Watching these kids this morning … they knew what Jeff meant to them. You never know what you’re missing, until it’s gone. He was part of every one of those kids’ lives. It did my heart good seeing those kids love that man.”
Reach Mark Huber at 937-556-5765, via email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @wnjsports