Winning for Wes: Fennville Advances in Emotional Contest

By: Alex Goldsmith Email
By: Alex Goldsmith Email

The Associated Press
Members of the Fennville High School basketball team lift Wes Leonard, top, after he made a game-winning layup in overtime against Bridgman, in Fennville, Mich. , Thursday night, March 23, 2011. After making the shot, the Michigan high school star collapsed on the court and later died.

Fennville's 65-54 win over the Lawrence Tigers in their first playoff game Monday wasn't the end of either their storybook season or their grieving process, but it was an important step.

The Blackhawks' win came just four days after star player Wes Leonard died on the court minutes after laying in the game-winning basket to preserve Fennville's perfect season. Leonard died of a cardiac arrest caused by an enlarged heart.

Leading the way for the Blackhawks was Adam Siegel, who had 22 points in the victory. Lawrence briefly took a small lead midway through the fourth quarter, but Fennville rallied to win by double digits.

The atmosphere at the game was electric and felt like a Fennville home game. Technically, Lawrence was supposed to host, but both schools worked out an agreement to move the venue to Hope College's Devos Fieldhouse in Holland. That allowed a sold-out crowd of 3,500 to take in the game.

"Lawrence was just unbelievably gracious," said Fennville Superintendent Dirk Weeldreyer. "They gave up home court to do this."

A moment of silence was observed before the game. Before tip-off, Fennville started with 4 players before adding in a fifth to symbolize Leonard's starter spot.

The teams ate a pre-game meal together and both wore the same shirts during warm-ups. The shirts had Leonard's name and #35 as well as the words "Never Forgotten".

Both teams also heard words of wisdom from former Loyola Marymount star Bo Kimble. Kimble was especially close to teammate Hank Gathers when Gathers died on the court from a cardiac arrest caused by an enlarged heart in 1990. During the following NCAA Tournament run LMU made, Kimble paid tribute to Gathers by shooting his first free throw left-handed each game.

Kimble had some advice for the Blackhawk players suffering a similar tragedy.

"When you get sad and emotional, think of 4 or 5 things about [Wes] that are going to make you proud and happy and smile," said Kimble, who started the 44 for Life Foundation to raise awareness about athlete heart screening and heart disease

The Blackhawks seemed to feed off of their emotion, winning by 11 and keeping their perfect season alive. Although it's tough to say that there were any losers in a game with this much sportsmanship.

Fennville's next game is against Bangor on Wednesday. is happy to provide a forum for commenting and discussion. Please respect and abide by the house rules:

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