March 06, 2011
Facing an almost unthinkable dilemma, the Fennville (Mich.) High basketball team has opted to play its first state playoff game of the 2010-11 season on Monday night rather than bow out of a perfect season which took a tragic turn Thursday when star Wes Leonard collapsed and died on the court minutes after hitting a game-winning shot. Touchingly, the decision to play was made easier by the very team Fennville will be facing: Lawrence (Mich.) High.
According to the Associated Press and Detroit News, the Fennville team practiced on Saturday and officials from the school and team met with the Leonard family before deciding to play Monday's game. Additionally, with the cooperation of Lawrence (Mich.) High -- Fennville's playoff opponent -- the teams will play at Hope College's basketball arena, capacity 3,300, to allow more fans to attend the game.
While Hope College will technically be a neutral venue, it is located in Holland, Mich., which is the closest large town to Fennville. Yet despite the fact that Lawrence held a home-court advantage, it will now travel more than an hour to the site of the game, whereas Fennville will have to drive less than 30 minutes to the postseason opener. The Tigers willfully handed over their home-court advantage to help make it easier for Fennville to play ... and to allow more of the school's grieving fans to be there when the team takes the court for the first time without Leonard.
"We would like to offer our deepest thanks to Lawrence Public Schools," Fennville superintendent Dirk Weeldreyer said in a statement. "They have been more than gracious and accommodating in making this decision. By doing so, they are relinquishing home-court advantage. It is a display of the utmost sportsmanship."
Leonard, who was the school's unquestioned star in both basketball and football (he was the team's starting quarterback), died of cardiac arrest as the result of an enlarged heart, a medical examination determined on Friday. That same day, his teammates and coaches had yet to determine whether they would play their scheduled playoff game on Monday, with the town still in the midst of the grieving process.
"He had a personality that, when people were around him, they played better," longtime Fennville football coach Tim Schipper told the AP on Friday. "Everybody around him played better, because he was a leader and the best athlete."
While the loss of Leonard may still be the primary focus of the Fennville program, Monday's game won't necessarily be a complete distraction.
As Weeldreyer made clear, emerging from the school's first playoff game victorious is hardly the Fennville community's primary motivation at the moment.
"We also recognize that Lawrence has been cast in an unenviable position and must feel as if the world will be rooting against them," Weeldreyer said in the statement he released to the press. "Rather than focusing on the outcome of Monday's game, our joint goal is to make it a fitting tribute to the memory of Wes Leonard."
Regardless of the eventual result, if Fennville succeeds in the aim set forth by Weeldreyer, they will certainly be considered winners come Tuesday morning.