Illinois State basketball coach among 7 killed in plane crash after NCAA championship game

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(CNN) -- Seven people -- including Illinois State University associate men's basketball coach Torrey Ward and deputy athletic director Aaron Leetch -- died when their small plane crashed while heading back from the NCAA tournament final.

The aircraft went down overnight Monday about 2 miles east of the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington, McLean County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Bill Tate said.

That's about 5 miles from the campus of Illinois State, where Ward and Leetch both worked. It was not immediately known who else was on the aircraft, which the National Transportation Safety Board tweeted was a Cessna 414.

The plane was coming back from the NCAA Final Four championship game in Indianapolis, according to Illinois State athletics spokesman John Twork.

"The ISU community is reeling from the loss," Twork said.

The last post from a Twitter account that purportedly belongs to Ward features pictures from Lucas Oil Stadium, where Duke beat Wisconsin in the title game. There's also a picture of a small plane with the words, "My ride to the game wasn't bad #indy2015f4."

In a statement, Illinois State University President Larry Dietz remembered Ward and Leetch as "well-respected and much-loved colleagues in our athletics department" in the crash near Bloomington.

"Words cannot fully express the grief that is felt in the wake of such a tragedy," Dietz said. "We move between shock and profound sadness."

A standout player at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in his hometown between 1996 and 2000, Ward played professionally in China alongside Yao Ming before getting into coaching.

He was part of the staffs at Jacksonsville State University, the University of Mississippi and, for one year, in China before coming to Illinois State as an assistant prior to the 2012 season. He was promoted to associate head coach in May 2014, according to his official bio.

Coming from Arkansas State University, Leetch joined ISU in 2005 as an athletic director for development before assuming a number of other roles through 2011, his bio notes.

Leetch left the Illinois school to serve as director of athletics at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, then came back in June 2013 as ISU's deputy director of athletics. He was in charge of the Redbirds' athletics communications and video production units, and had a hands-on role in its football, men's basketball, golf and baseball programs.

Athletic Director Larry Lyons described Leetch as "a shining star in the business," while lauding Ward as "a talented coach and recruiter" with a big personality who was loved by fans.

"There is no play in the playbook for times like these," Lyons said. "We will miss Aaron and Torrey deeply, and we will support their families in any way that we can."

Dietz message to students, faculty and staff reads as follows:

Dear Students, Faculty and Staff,

Although the McLean County Coroner has not made official confirmation, the Illinois State University community is deeply saddened by the loss of two members of the Athletics department staff. Aaron Leetch and Torrey Ward were among seven people who died when the plane they were travelling in crashed near Bloomington. Both men were well-respected and much-loved colleagues in our Athletics department. I join with the Redbird Athletics family and the entire campus in mourning the loss of these two men and the others aboard. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families.

Aaron Leetch was deputy director of Athletics for external operations. He leaves behind his wife, Lindsay, and daughters Avery and Emmersen. Torrey Ward was associate head coach of the Redbirds men’s basketball team. He is survived by his children Torrey and Tamia.

Words cannot fully express the grief that is felt in the wake of such a tragedy. We move between shock and profound sadness. At times like these we may even question our deeply held beliefs and wonder what the future will hold. It is important to remember that we are never alone in our grief. A great many resources are available to help us cope with their loss in the coming days, weeks and months. Students impacted by this tragedy may contact our Student Counseling Services office at 438-3655.

We as a campus community rally together to support each other and most of all to support Aaron and Torrey’s families. Let us remember Aaron and Torrey as they were: true Redbirds.

With sadness,

Larry H. Dietz


1 Comment

  • mperry35

    You may wanna change headline! Head coach & Associate Head coach are two totally different positions! Head coach is Dan Mueller & he did not die.

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