HOLLAND, Mich.>> In the end, it was a game that west Michigan’s Fennville High basketball players knew their fallen teammate would have been proud of.
The Fennville Blackhawks paid tribute Monday night to 16-year-old Wes Leonard on the eve of his funeral by continuing the undefeated season that Leonard had saved when he hit the game-winning shot last week before collapsing and dying.
Now the small community near Lake Michigan will come together again Tuesday to remember the 6-foot-2, 215-pound teenager known for his athletic prowess in basketball and football before he died from a heart ailment.
"I think he was watching down on us," Fennville coach Ryan Klingler said after Monday night’s 65-54 win over Lawrence in an emotional first-round state tournament game before a crowd of 3,500. "This is a game he’d have liked."
Leonard’s absence overshadowed the game, which was moved from Lawrence to Hope College in Holland to accommodate a larger crowd. After the final buzzer sounded, his teammates hugged and cried.
In tribute to Leonard, Fennville sent just four players onto the court before the opening tip. The fifth player took the court after a dramatic pause to wild cheering from the crowd.
Some players flashed Leonard’s jersey number, "35" — holding up three fingers on one hand and five on the other — at moments before and during the game. Fans held up signs with such phrases as "We love Wes" or had his number painted on their faces in the team’s colors, black and orange.
During pregame warm-ups, players from both teams wore black T-shirts with Leonard’s name and number on the back and the phrase "Never Forgotten" on the front. Players also wore black wristbands with Leonard’s initials on them.
The first standing ovation came as Fennville players stoically walked onto the court for pregame warm-ups, joined by Leonard’s younger brother, Mitchell. The crowd again came to its feet and clapped as more members of the Leonard family, including his parents, entered DeVos Fieldhouse.
A moment of silence was held for Leonard, who also was the quarterback on the school’s football team.
The late player’s uncle, Jim Leonard, said the family is overwhelmed at the support it’s received.
A large crowd, including more than 100 family members from out-of-state, is expected for Leonard’s Tuesday morning funeral at Christ Memorial Church in Holland. The service is expected to last up to two hours.
Fennville is a town of about 1,400, but the school district covers a broader area in southwest Michigan near Lake Michigan.
Monday’s game was the first for Fennville since Thursday, when Leonard made the game-winning basket in overtime on his home court against Bridgman to cap an undefeated regular season at 20-0. Teams shook hands after the game and Leonard was lifted off the floor in celebration, a wide grin on his face.
Seconds later, he fell to the court, stunning a crowd estimated at more than 1,400. Leonard was rushed to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy by the Ottawa County medical examiner showed Leonard died of cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart.
Fennville’s second Class C district game is scheduled for Wednesday.
Fennville’s decision to play Monday came after school officials talked to Leonard’s family. While some fans and school officials had talked before the game about how it wouldn’t really matter who won, Fennville players didn’t seem to have that attitude — rallying to victory after falling behind early.
"Wes would have wanted to win," said Adam Siegel, a teammate of Leonard’s. "I wanted to win. … It felt good to win for him."