High school basketball programs across the country are kicking back into gear, with the regular season getting started in states where it wasn't already in full swing. On Tuesday, a small school in Michigan got in on the act, but unlike other schools, it was what happened before the game that left the biggest impact.
Fennville (Mich.) High's boys basketball team competed in its first game since the program was eliminated in the regional round of the Michigan state playoffs. That playoff run captured national attention after the team's star player, Wes Leonard, hit a district title-winning shot in his team's regular season finale and then collapsed on the court and died.
The tragedy brought small communities from throughout Michigan together in memory of an athletic star who was lost far too soon. Now, as the 2011-12 boys basketball season tips off, the school once again remembered Leonard in an emotional pregame tribute. According to the Associated Press, Leonard's teammates -- including his younger brother, Mitchell Leonard, who is a freshman on the team -- paid homage to the former star's memory in presume speeches and a somber ceremony.
"We carry on with Wes in our hearts," Fennville coach Ryan Klingler said during the tribute ceremony. "As Wes himself said, 'keep working, You can only get better and never get down on yourself.'"
The Blackhawks followed those instructions on Tuesday, racing to a 51-43 victory against Lawton (Mich.) High in a game which both Klingler and his players said had an eerie presence that ran throughout.
"As soon as I stepped on the court, I knew he was there," said Fennville senior starter Xavier Grigg told the AP. "I used it as motivation, knowing he was there with us. We had another guy helping us and watching out for us."
With a win under the team's belt, Klingler said that the program would look to move on, all while trying to make a difference in the community in honor of Leonard's memory. Before the game, Leonard's mother, Jocelyn Leonard, spoke to the Associated Press about her desire to raise funds to install defibrillators in the gymnasiums of all schools in Michigan.
With that goal in mind, the team has set up a charity fundraiser game on January 6 against Saugatuck (Mich.) High, where proceeds from t-shirt sales going toward the Wes Leonard Heart Foundation, which has been established in the hope of avoiding similar tragedies at other sites in the future.
In the meantime, the Blackhawks will carry on, all while knowing that they can never take their next day for granted.
"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."