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Fennville presses on after star's death as 'Wes would want'

On Monday night, they walked onto a basketball court united, their arms locked and their matching black shirts displaying the two words that somehow kept them in one piece.


The last time the Fennville High boys basketball team walked off the floor, celebration had given way to tragedy in a matter of minutes.

Wes Leonard, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound two-sport star died after collapsing while celebrating with his teammates after his driving layup in the final seconds of overtime Thursday kept the Blackhawks perfect on the season.

An autopsy performed Friday determined an enlarged heart caused Leonard's death at age 16.

Four days later, the reality of the start of Michigan's high school tournament forced his teammates to continue to move past their sorrow. They did so together, constantly mindful that Leonard's spirit was still part of them.

"I think Wes would be proud of us all," Fennville coach Ryan Klingler said after Fennville's 65-54 playoff victory over Lawrence in front of 3,417 fans at DeVos Fieldhouse.

"I just told the guys that we wanted to play competitively because that's what Wes would want."

Monday's victory capped four emotionally draining days for a small West Michigan town coping with the second death of a teenage athlete in just more than a year.

Fennville, located 200 miles west of Detroit, is known as a community where the town's 1,400 residents wrap their arms around one another.

The city's limits stretch only a mile, reaching from welcome sign to welcome sign on a rural stretch of Highway M-89 unburdened by stop signs or traffic lights.

Since Thursday night, Leonard's death has been a constant topic of discussion at The Blue Goose Cafe, the kind of small-town diner where business slogans and phone numbers are reprinted on coffee mugs.

The brick eatery is situated smack dab in the middle of Main Street, where independently owned storefronts like Alexander's Drug Store and the True Value hardware store line the block-long business district.

Fennville has survived teenage deaths before -- including 14 months ago when 14-year-old wrestler Nathaniel Hernandez died of a seizure at his home following a match -- but Leonard's passing has touched the town on another level.

"Because of who he was, it's just different," said Wanda Wooten, a lifelong Fennville resident. "It's because he's so well known. There's just been a lot of sadness. A lot of tears."

On Monday, signs of the town's grief were everywhere.

The local secondhand store is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but a tribute to Leonard held a prominent place in the storefront window.

The display included a black sign that read, "Blackhawk Down." Just down the street, the local tire repair shop had offered a message to the team:

"You can do it Hawks," the sign read. "Just look up."

Game days in Fennville are typically crazy. The basketball team and cheerleaders typically dine at The Blue Goose before games. They met there Monday morning but quietly ate breakfast with conversations lasting only a few sentences.

"It was very, very sobering," said Mary Emerick, a waitress at the diner for 13 years. "And that's not normal for kids."

There hasn't been much normalcy around Fennville since Leonard's death.

On Sunday, more than 1,400 attended visitation for the high school star. Earlier in the day, Fennville practiced for the second time since his death, continuing preparations for a game Leonard's family agreed should go on as scheduled.

Originally planned to be played in Lawrence, located 39 miles south of Fennville, school officials agreed to move the game to a bigger venue.

With Lawrence's blessing, Monday night's game was moved to Hope College, 21 miles out of Fennville's city limits.

The Blackhawks practiced Saturday and Sunday, slowing putting the shock of Leonard's death behind them.

"The basketball court kind of became a refuge for them," Fennville superintendent Dirk Weeldreyer said. "It allowed them to feel that sense of normalcy that for much of the last 72 hours, they hadn't felt."

But their journey back to reality wouldn't be made alone.

Three hours before Fennville and Lawrence met on the court, they shared a meal together and each received pregame visits from Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and former Loyola Marymount star Bo Kimble, who witnessed the death of teammate Hank Gathers in 1990.

A number of Lawrence players and coaches had witnessed Thursday night's tragic turn of events, helping link them with Monday night's opponent.

But given everything Fennville had endured over the past four days, Monday's mission wouldn't be easy.

"It's going to be difficult for us," Lawrence schools superintendent John Overley said. "We know that people aren't coming here to see the Lawrence Tigers."

As a tribute to Leonard, Lawrence players wore the same "Never Forgotten" T-shirts that Fennville entered the court wearing.

On a wall located at one end of the fieldhouse hung a poster covered with signatures, serving as a tribute to Leonard and a means of support for the Fennville community.

As game time approached, Leonard's younger brother, Mitchell, led the Blackhawks onto the floor for warmups. As players walked down the sidelines, Lawrence players stopped their warmups, turned and applauded.

Afterward, Lawrence players said the game would be one they would never forget.

"I think we could win a state championship and it wouldn't be like this," Lawrence senior Austin Cammire said.

Fennville's students wore orange ribbons on T-shirts that paid honor to Leonard's memory. Painted on one shirt were the words, "Blackhawks Shining Athlete Is Now God's Shining Star."

As the Blackhawks passed by, Fennville students sensed that players were finding a way to move forward.

"It's just really good to see them coming together for Wes," said senior Aaron McKellips, one of Leonard's teammates on the Fennville football team. "It's been tough, but I think it's starting to set in a little bit.

"We still miss him and it's never going to be the same without him."

Leonard had more than 100 family members drive in for the game, traveling from as far away as Kansas and Missouri.

Amid the family gathering, Leonard's parents, Gary and Jocelyn, sat, witnessing for the first time the level of support created after their son's death.

"Until today, they had no idea what was going on outside the four walls of their home," Gary's brother, Jim, said Monday night. "I don't know how they can even describe the level of sorrow we're going through, but on the same hand, the amount of love and support we've received."

The Blackhawks will play again Wednesday night, only a day after a community mourns its star athlete's death. Residents said Monday it could be weeks or perhaps months before the pain diminishes.

But for a basketball team carrying the hopes of their town on their shoulders, Monday was a big step forward.

No matter how difficult it was to take without Leonard.

"They have shown me that you can rise up," said Klingler, the Fennville coach. "I mean, my gosh, the strength they showed and that the Leonards showed in being here tonight just blows my mind.

"And that exemplifies Wes Leonard."