FENNVILLE, Mich. – It was an emotion-packed home opener Tuesday night as a Michigan high school basketball team returned to the court where nine months earlier a star player collapsed and died after nailing a game-winning shot.
While Fennville's boys team opened this season with a 51-43 victory over Lawton, the contest itself was largely upstaged by the pregame tribute to Wes Leonard. His shot in the Blackhawks' last game at the gym on March 3 clinched a 20-0 regular season.
"As soon as I stepped on the court, I knew he was there," said Fennville senior Xavier Grigg, one of Leonard's teammates on the team. "I used it as motivation, knowing he was there with us. We had another guy helping us and watching out for us."
Following last year's game, Leonard collapsed on the court and was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. A medical examiner determined he had sudden cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart.
The death drew national attention and stunned many in Fennville, a town of about 1,000 not far from Lake Michigan, about 150 miles west of Detroit.
Before tipoff Tuesday, Fennville coach Ryan Klingler gave a brief but emotional tribute.
"We carry on with Wes in our hearts," Klingler said, his voice quivering with emotion while holding back tears. "As Wes himself said, 'keep working, You can only get better and never get down on yourself.'"
Leonard's 14-year-old brother, Mitchell, is a freshman guard on the varsity and came off the bench throughout the game. He had three fouls and three rebounds but did not score.
"We talked about before the game that it's a basketball game," Klingler said. "We just wanted these guys to play hard. It definitely wasn't the prettiest time. For the first game back since an emotional beginning, I wanted the guys to enjoy the game and try to get better as we're playing.'"
Leonard's mother, Jocelyn and father Gary were at the game but did not speak during the pregame program. Mitchell Leonard and his parents declined to talk with reporters after the game.
"We play knowing Wes is with us and watching us," said Klingler, whose players were encircled arm-in-arm during his speech.
Grigg's mother, Maria Flores, wore a large button with a picture of Leonard and the words 'Just One More Game.'
"It just feels empty," Flores said. "It doesn't feel right. But this night had to happen. It's different. It's something we have to do."
Fennville school superintendent Dirk Weeldreyer, who called the March game over the public address system, also called Tuesday night's contest.
"What can you say?" Weeldreyer said. "It's our first time back here in that gym again since that night. The emotions were running high. I think everyone did a good job. We get great community support."
The school has planned a game for Jan. 6 against Saugatuck. Red "Never Forgotten" T-shirts, in honor of Leonard will be sold, with all proceeds going to a charity in his honor. The Wes Leonard Heart Team was created with the mission of getting defibrillators and people trained to use them placed at every school in the state to prevent similar tragedies.
Leonard also is to be inducted into the school's sports hall of fame in February.
Klingler said it was important for players and fans to get past the first game following Leonard's death.
"You understand that it's OK to still enjoy things that we're trying to do," Klingler said. "For us, every day is a day we don't forget."