For 11 days, Fennville, Mich., grieved after the sudden loss of one its brightest and most gifted high school athletes. Along the way, the sad story of Wes Leonard's death made national headlines. But something strange and amazing happened while the small town mourned: The school's basketball team -- Leonard's team -- just kept winning games. Three in a row without their best player. How long could this last?
On Monday night, Fennville's winning streak, and its season, finally ended with an 86-62 loss to Schoolcraft in the Michigan high school Class C regional semifinals.
"I don't think our team understands maybe the ramifications down the road, of what they will be able to draw from this," said Fennville coach Ryan Klingler. "For 15-, 16-, 17-year old kids, to do what they did, down the road, they will have a strength that can almost be unbroken."
Leonard, a 16-year-old junior and two-sport star, collapsed and died on the court just moments after hitting the game-winning layup in the team's regular-season finale on March 3. An autopsy revealed that Leonard had an enlarged heart. Marching on without their leader, the Blackhawks, ranked No. 4 in the state, reeled off three playoff victories to improve to 23-0 before second-ranked Schoolcraft, also unbeaten, ended their run.
Neither community is accustomed to the national spotlight, but Monday night was not a typical basketball game. More than 3,500 fans, families, spectators and media from Kalamazoo, Mich., to Bristol, Conn., packed the gym at Vicksburg High School, about five miles east of Schoolcraft, creating an electric, emotional scene unlike anything most had experienced.
"It was a lot louder than any game I've ever played in," said Schoolcraft's Kody Chandler, a senior who scored 23 points. "Both communities came together tonight."
Before the game, Schoolcraft's coaches and players presented the Fennville team with a card that each member signed. "I wanted them to know how we felt, and we thought the card would be a personal note," said Schoolcraft coach Randy Small.
During warm-ups Fennville players wore black T-shirts with the words,
"Tonight was a great, great high school atmosphere, and I think it says a lot for small town basketball." Small said. "There's a lot of pride there, and Fennville showed it tonight."
Fennville and Schoolcraft, two southwest Michigan communities separated by 50 miles, are a lot alike. Fennville has little more than 1,400 residents, Schoolcraft has about 1,500. Folks in Fennville gather at the Blue Goose Café to discuss everything from high school sports to world events. In Schoolcraft, this scene plays out at Bud's bar. Fennville stages its big community event, the Goose Festival, each October. Schoolcraft throws a nice, little bash every Fourth of July.
"When something happens in the community, people rally around it," Small said. "The community becomes a part of their team."
Fennville led by two after the first quarter but trailed by eight at halftime. Schoolcraft broke the game open in the third quarter, and reserves from both schools saw action in the final minutes. After it was over, the handshake line lasted a long time as the Schoolcraft and Fennville players embraced and shared a few words.
"I told them they made him proud, and they played hard," Chandler said. "They have nothing to be ashamed of."
For Fennville, life will go on, but the near future will be difficult.
"I've always cared about our kids, whether it was our players or our students," Klingler said. "But I probably didn't tell them enough. Wes was pretty darn special to a lot of people. I probably didn't take the time to tell him how great he was. So I make sure I do a better job of letting them know how much I care about them and how important they are."
Fennville players have taken turns spending the night at the Leonard's house. Wes's parents, Gary and Jocelyn, plan to start a cause to create awareness for the heart condition that took their son's life.
"You won't get over it, but you've got to get through it," Jocelyn Leonard told the AP. "We couldn't get through it without everybody helping us."