In Fennville's latest triumph, the real MVP wasn't even on the court. Wes Leonard's brother, who isn't on the team, accepted the district championship trophy. And for once in a tumultuous seven-day period that saw Fennville, Mich., become the epicenter of America's basketball-mad March subconscious, everyone got to smile.
The smiles came thanks to a tense, come-from-behind, 51-48 Fennville (Mich.) High victory over Covert (Mich.) High in a Class C district final playoff game. The smiles came thanks to Fennville player Reid Sexton, who connected on both his free throws with 16.5 seconds remaining, giving the Blackhawks a three-point lead that Covert couldn't match, despite a desperation attempt in the closing seconds.
And once again, the smiles and tears came to Mitchell Leonard, the younger brother of the now departed Wes Leonard, an eighth-grader who has become a fixture on the Fennville bench and with the team since his brother's sudden death. He's become so close, in fact, that he says the rest of the Fennville team all feel like members of his larger nuclear family.
"They are like brothers to me now," Mitchell Leonard told the Detroit Free Press. "They always will be. They are like family."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people smiling brightest were Leonard's relatives, who helped pack Hope College's DeVos Fieldhouse with Fennville fans for a third straight game. They were joined again by Leonard's longtime girlfriend, Selena Beltran-Pena, who told WOOD-TV that each game since her boyfriend's death has been a form of therapy.
"We lost it," Wes Leonard's uncle, Jim Leonard, told the Free Press.
"I knew they could do it," Beltran-Pena told the paper. "I knew it."
The Blackhawks did it using a wealth of emotion and a handful of more clutch shots, just as they used to get through the team's first two playoff victories. What restraint the players and fans had held inside quickly disapparated at the final whistle, with Xavier Griggs -- Leonard's replacement in the team's starting lineup -- rushing to Mitchell Leonard and hoisting the ebullient teen aloft, all while tears streamed down his face.
It was another fitting tribute to a player whose family had extended beyond his blood relatives to those he shared time with on a basketball court or football field, but it will not be the last, either. The 23-0 Blackhawks return to action in a regional playoff game against a fellow undefeated squad from Schoolcraft (Mich.) High.
Like the three Fennville playoff victories that preceded it, the game is expected to be a sellout, this time at a slightly smaller venue, with only 1,500 tickets allotted to Fennville relatives and fans for the game at Vicksburg (Mich.) High.
Regardless of those restrictions, it's likely than virtually the entire population of the town will travel the roughly 75-minute stretch to Vicksburg to cheer on the Blackhawks as they try to get closer to Leonard's long-stated goal of leading his team to a potential state title.
"It was really his goal and his dream; he would always be talking about the Breslin Center," Beltran-Pena told WOOD-TV, the number 35 on her cheek indistinguishable from the hundreds of others at Friday's game. "He wanted to lead his team there, so right now the boys are talking about trying to get there for Wes."
If they get to Michigan State's Breslin Center for the state finals, Leonard will be there too. He'll be there in spirit, just as it's clear he has been for three victories already.
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More on Fennville and Wes Leonard:
• Wes Leonard's memory inspires as team reaches district title game
• Fennville advances in first game without fallen star Wes Leonard
• Michigan team to play days after star died on court
• Prep star hits game winning shot for perfect season, falls and dies