The distance between the Minnesota and Michigan boys basketball state tournament finals -- held in St. Paul and Lansing, respectively -- is some 617 miles using the most direct of routes. On Saturday, the two sites felt much closer, with champions at both the Target Center and Breslin Center connected by the common threads of high school tragedy.
In Minnesota, Perham (Minn.) High, which dedicated its season to teammate Zach Gabbard -- who collapsed during a midseason game and has been recovering ever since -- captured the state 2A crown in honor of its ailing teammate, who was too weak to attend the final. Meanwhile, in Michigan, Schoolcraft (Mich.) High breezed to the Class C title just weeks after eliminating Fennville (Mich.) High, the team of fallen star Wes Leonard.
Both Gabbard and Leonard were struck with heart defects which brought on cardiac arrests, and both Perham and Schoolcraft had to overcome challenging circumstances brought on by those tragic events. For Perham, it was playing out the rest of a season without one of its best players and spiritual leaders. For Schoolcraft, it meant vanquishing a Cinderella team which captured the country's imagination the way few, if any, ever have.
"[Gabbard is] always here in our heart," Perham star Nick Tobkin told the Associated Press of his recovering teammate, whose name was announced during the team's medal presentation. "He was the one reason we wanted to get here. He just gave us that much more motivation and inspiration. When we're down, he's always right there to pick us back up like we are for him."
Perham pulled off that feat thanks in large part to Tobkin's heroics. The star scored 15 points, including seven of his team's final 12 points, as the Yellowjackets pulled away from Rochester (Minn.) Lourdes High in a 45-37 state title victory. Afterward, Tobkin and his teammates again dedicated their state title to Gabbard, holding up three fingers (Gabbard wore uniform No. 3) while wearing their team warmups, all of which have "Gabbard, 3" on the back, and posing with the state title trophy.
Even though Gabbard wasn't allowed to attend the game, as he had Perham's previous state tournament victories, he watched from his hospital bed and gave his teammates a direct message before the game.
"Today, he was just a little worn out," Perham coach Dave Cresap told the AP. "He couldn't get out of bed. His doctor said he needed to rest today. We called and asked for his will and his strength, and he gave it to us and we were able to persevere and win a state championship for him."
Schoolcraft may not have been playing for Leonard in the same way that Perham was for Gabbard, but the undefeated Michigan champ was still affected by the former Fennville star's aura. Fennville rolled through the qualifying rounds of the playoffs without Leonard, but Schoolcraft proved too tough to topple, with the Eagles moving on to the state tournament.
The state final wouldn't be much closer than Schoolcraft's 86-62 victory against Fennville in the regional playoffs, with the Eagles eventually prevailing, 73-59. While Schoolcraft's title may not provide any further validation of the Blackhawks' own playoff run, it does speak to just how inspired the grieving team's earlier victories were.
"We ran into a very good team, but we battled for 32 minutes," Fennville coach Ryan Klinger told MLive.com after his team's season-ending loss earlier in March. "[We] battled the best we could."
At the end of the day, that's all any coach, parent or fan can ask of any team, whether it wins a state title or falls short of the playoffs.