BOZEMAN — Excitement surrounded the Billings Central boys basketball team Thursday at the Class A state tournament, but two letters and a cross on each player's shoes suggested a more somber tenor as well.
"C.L." was for the memory of Chloe Lai, a Billings fourth-grader and student who died Tuesday from influenza.
The players have dedicated the tournament to Chloe, a student at St. Francis Catholic School. The team even visited the school Thursday morning before leaving for Bozeman, hoping to help students and teachers deal with their grief.
"It was definitely heart-warming," Rams co-captain Jae Hugs said. "Everyone was down, but we went in there, walked through the halls and the kids were smiling, giving us high-fives and it definitely brought us into good spirits. Our prayers are with the Lai family."
Hugs, a senior, was the driving force behind stopping at the school. He said the entire team came up with the tribute on the shoes.
"Catholic schools are one big family and it was very sad. In our locker room, we said, 'This is for Chloe.' I teared up. I was very sad when I found out," Hugs said somberly. "I have a sibling that's in fourth grade, so it's very hard."
In the class, the Rams gave the students a team poster and another sign with a Biblical verse, both signed by the players. Hugs, in a video provided by coach Jim Stergar, told the students they were with them through the tournament and that the Rams appreciate their support.
The video shows flowers on Chloe's desk.
Stergar, a father of four, echoed Hugs and the impact of Chloe's passing on him personally.
"It's just a tragedy, and my daughter is in fourth grade as well and a classmate of hers," he said. "We will be thinking about her and in the end, what they did this morning was more important than any basketball game they'll play in."
After driving to Bozeman, the Rams upset previously undefeated Hamilton 64-37 to advance to the semifinals. From start to finish, the Rams played full-throttle, with point guard Chrishon Dixon saying a big reason was Chloe.
"We were playing for her knowing that she had a bunch of dreams and we wanted them to come true for her," Dixon said. "One of our fellow classmates passed so we needed to show our support to the middle schoolers and show that we still have love for them and that we always have their back no matter what."
Added Hugs: "There's more to life than basketball. I think those are some things that are going to impact the younger generations."