Rivals Unite for 'Never Forgotten Games'
Rivals Unite for 'Never Forgotten Games'
Boys Basketball, Girls Basketball
Posted Wednesday, January 24, 2018

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half

FENNVILLE – The small West Michigan towns of Fennville and Saugatuck are separated by less than 10 miles, thus sparking a longstanding rivalry that has played out in various sports through the years.

However, for one night, a special event brought the two communities together to help support a worthy cause.

The seventh-annual “Never Forgotten Games” between the neighboring communities were played Friday night at Hope College in honor of Wes Leonard, who died unexpectedly in 2011 after making the game-winning basket in overtime against rival Bridgman.

Leonard, a 16-year-old junior at the time, died from sudden cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart.

To open the night, Saugatuck’s girls defeated Fennville 55-40. Then, in a back-and-forth affair typical of a rivalry game, Fennville’s boys edged Saugatuck 48-46 and improved to 8-2 on the season.

But Fennville boys basketball coach Joe Rodriguez said the final result paled in comparison to the impact the game had on both schools.

“We circle that game on the calendar because it’s an opportunity to focus your energy on something bigger than us,” he said. “It’s not just a conference game; it’s not just another basketball game or Friday night game. It’s bigger than the game of basketball itself. It’s one of our former players that we look forward to tributing.

“Everyone was there for one reason, and that was to celebrate the legacy of Wes Leonard and to support the cause.”

The two schools joined forces to help make the night a success, including meeting in the days prior to discuss game preparations.

“Some Fennville kids came over to our school and met with some of our kids before to go over cheer and signs and just how we could help out,” Saugatuck boys basketball coach Andy Diaz said. “Our kids showed up early to help set up and help Jocelyn (Leonard, Wes' mother), so it was a real collaborative effort.”

This year Fennville’s student section, recalling some of their experiences taking part in the MHSAA’s “Battle of the Fans” the last two years, invited Saugatuck’s student section to join forces for some cheers during the game. Last week, Fennville student section leaders Kamryn Vandyke, Clay Rosema and Isabella Marquez strategized with Saugatuck’s Reece Schreckengust, Sydney Ayres and Alexa Phillips, designing and planning cheers they could do together.

The schools’ band teachers – Fennville’s Paul Andrews and Saugatuck’s Andrew Holtz – also met and planned the combined bad that played together in the same section for the entirety of Friday’s game.

“Although rival schools, both student bodies have embraced the idea that the cause is an opportunity to be a part of something greater than the game itself,” Fennville athletic director Frank Marietta said. “Both schools are very competitive on the field of play, but there is a positive and strong relationship between the students as a whole. The spirit and heart of the students from each school is what makes it such a great rivalry.”

The close-knit ties between the schools run deep.

“They know each other very well,” Diaz said. “They work at the same places during the summer, and they cross paths all the time. I have a lot of friends in Fennville.”

Rivalry games often are intense and emotional, but this one is different due to the greater significance the night holds.

“That’s the unique part of it,” Rodriguez said. “As a coach you want to talk about how it’s your rivalry game, but this one is a little different. It’s all about the events, and they play a big part in helping.”

 “They are our neighbors, and when we went through (Leonard’s death) they showed a lot of support as a community to Fennville, and I think it’s awesome that they are a part of this game as well.”

Rodriguez said competing against another team in that setting just wouldn’t seem fitting.

“Because we are so close it would be weird if it was another community that we were playing,” he said. “It would feel manufactured, where this is more genuine.”

Diaz said the rivalry took on a different meaning after Leonard’s untimely passing.

“I feel very fortunate to be a part of the best small-school rivalry in the state of Michigan,” he said. “That’s our personal opinion, and when Wes passed, it definitely changed the perspective and narrative of the rivalry, especially on that game night.”

Shortly after Leonard’s tragic death, The Wes Leonard Heart Team was formed. The foundation raises money for automated external defibrillator (AED) awareness and donates AEDs to schools throughout the state.

The mission of the foundation is to honor Wes’s life using a team approach, combining the efforts of his loved ones and other existing foundations in the pursuit of a common goal. The foundation “is committed to honoring the children who have lost their lives to Sudden Cardiac Arrest and preventing other families and friends from feeling the pain of losing their loved ones. With this team approach, we feel we can give others a chance at ‘just one more game.’”

More than 260 AEDs have been put into schools through the foundation, and another 4-6 will be donated with money raised Friday.

The Never Forgotten Game hits close to home for Diaz, whose mother survived a scare almost seven years ago.

“My mom was saved by an AED,” Diaz said. “She had a heart attack in church, and one was used to revive her. They had to shock her twice, and without an AED, she’d be gone.”

Diaz, a Saugatuck graduate who coached against Leonard in football and basketball, hopes the money raised by the game can help others who may encounter the same situation.

“I gave my mom a big hug before that game because an AED saved her life, and maybe this game buys the right AED for a school that saves someone else’s life,” Diaz said. “It just put things into perspective. Obviously, we always want to win the game, but at the end of the day what really matters is the cause and Wes.

“We talked before the game about how this game is bigger than any of them. It’s not about us; it’s not about them. It’s about the entire state of Michigan at this point because of the importance of saving lives.”

Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at dream100@comcast.net with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Fennville's students cheer as a classmate brings the ball upcourt against Saugatuck on Friday. (Middle) Fennville's student section worked with Saugatuck's to cheer together during the games at Hope College. (Photos by Isabela Marquez/Fennville High School.)


# Steve Bruce
Wednesday, January 24, 2018 3:56 PM
I was in attendance for the first game that Fennville played without Wes while in Holland on business. Being a huge high school basketball fan in Minnesota where I lived, this evening at Hope is something I will "Never Forget". I wrote a note on my Facebook page that evening and called both of my children telling them of what transpired that evening and made sure I told them both I loved them. This was my Facebook note to my friends from home if interested.

Emotional night in Michigan
March 8, 2011 at 9:19pm
Last night, by luck, but also I believe for a reason, I was able to attend the Fennville/Lawrence District basketball game in Holland MI. 24 hours later, I cannot get the event out of my mind. Fennville is the team who lost their best player and athlete shortly after a game winning shot due to an enlarged heart. I am sure lots of you have seen the story everywhere on TV, but wanted to share my experience. While I am still one of the most rabid basketball fans there are, this night has put things in perspective way beyond anything I have every experienced. I remember a lot of games, but this one will be very tough to top.

If you don't mind my rambling, I am going to share what I saw and felt while at this game. First of all, and I apologize if I am repeating things you read already, but Lawrence had given up their homecourt advantage and allowed the game to be moved to Hope College in Holland, which seated 3600 people. The gym was magnificient and for some reason I personally saw the lights in the gym shining much brighter than anything I had ever seen before. Fragment of my imagination? Possibly....still though I want to believe there was another reason.

First let me talk about pre-game and then also about the Lawrence team and coach who were in such a difficult position to come and play under these circumstances. The 2 teams enjoyed a pre-game meal together and had a couple guests in Tom Izzo and Bo Kimble. Izzo did not remain for the game as he obviously had Big Ten tourney commitments, but Bo Kimble did remain and talked to the kids about this experience and his own dealing with Hank Gathers of Loyola Marymount fame also dying of an enlarged heart on the court. I will post some links to some of the stories at the bottom of this post, but one of my favorites parts of this night was looking at that Fenville team with Mr. Bo Kimble, who drove all night from Philly(not a short ride at all to Western Michigan), to be there for these kids, sitting direcltly behind the teams bench, goint to their locker room at half and just being a rock for these kids.

Lawrence was given 1000 tickets for the game and Fennville 2000, the rest were up for grabs, I got there at 6:15, the sold out signs had been up there for over an hour already. I don't know if Lawrence didn't have a basketball following or what, but the gym was 90% orange and black(Fennville Colors). I honestly believe the citizens of Lawrence felt that it was necessary for as many Fennville fans to get in as possible.

Media was everywhere, local, national, even your Inside Edition's and shows like that were surrounding the court snapping pictures and just being part of this event. They were not a pushy bunch, it was very professionally done and they were under control. I was certainly happy to see this as my experiences in the past with media presence have not made me happy.

Finally the Lawrence team arrived on the court and received a round of applause from the whole gym. The were wearing the same black shirts that Fennville would wearing saying "never forget" on the front and #35 with Leonard on the back. These kids were class acts the whole game and played very hard. Their coach was a very industrious hard working man who did all he could to coach as he would any other time. At the end of the game, these kids were obviously disappointed with losing, but classy all the way heading over to the Fenville student section and showing their sympathy with thumbs up, a few random hugs and just aweome and great sportsmanship. I was so proud of those kids and I didn't even know of them until that evening. Unbelievable the way that this team carried itself through it all.

Fennville took a little while longer to get out of the locker rooom, there was just 15 minutes til the tip and these kids came out. Wes Leonard's only sibling, a brother in 8th grade led the team out wearing a white shirt and shorts with t-shirt saying the same as the black ones his brother's teammates wore. Cameras were all over these kids, they came out arm in arm, it was so amazing. It was the first of many times that I became overwhelmed with emotion. The kids went to warm up, but even during those minutes of warm ups, those players closest to Wes had to leave the court and wept or worked to compose themselves. It was obviously not easy for them to withstand all of the love and emotion in the gym. The young brother sat on the bench with the team and many of the kids who were having issues with emotions were amazingly consoled by this young man. I was so overly impressed.

Gametime arrived, the superintendents of the schools both spoke, there was a most wonderful moment of silence for Wes. You could feel the overwhelming power of love during this time. It was just amazing. Starting lineups were announced and for Fennville, they began the game with just four players. Obviously they left the spot open which once belonged to Wes.

Shortly before, the tip the horn honked and a substition was made. The fifth Fenville player came into the game. It was a kid I thought about all day prior to coming to the game. Someone who was a friend to Wes, but someone who had to fill his shoes for the night. Big shoes I might add. The crowd went nuts in tribute. That was such a classy thing to do. The game began and honestly, the details of the actual game were not really absorbed by me. I remember the few runs teams had, the great passes, I did yell at a ref or 2, but that is just me.

Things I do remember are that very early in the first half, that young boy who had to substitute in was just shelved and terribly upset about it all. He asked to come out of the game. He was just beside himself and went to the end of the bench. The head coach went and say by this young man and basically sat and was there for him during at least 5 minutes of the game. He wasn't even coaching at that point, he was there for his player. Emotional moment #3 for me and I tear up just thinking and typing it again. The coach is an amazing rock for this team. Big tough looking guy, but heart of gold. I feel for him so much.

This young man did eventually gather himself enough to get back into the game and his first shot back was a long three that hit nothing but net. Me and a few others in my section, who must have been watching what I was just got up and roared for this young man. He ended up playing a huge role in the win.

So many of the others Fennville kids were having their good and bad moments as well, but persevered it in a way, that Hollywood could not script. I, along with everyone else there, was so overly impressed with their ability to play through this terrible tragedy.

The end of the game was a blur to me. Fennville won, the kids really did not show tons of happiness, but showed just how drained they had become playing this great game. They met with their coach and formed a small circle. A small prayer was said, they shook hands with the ever caring Lawrence squad and were escorted off the court. The fans were not leaving their seats, after the kids left the court, the student body and the adult parents cheered Blackhawk Power for a good minute. I taped it on my Iphone, I'll never erase that.

Somehow then, the lights to me became even brighter. The funeral was today my mind was with that group during that time. Tomorrow they have to get ready to play another game. Say a prayer for these young men, Wes's family and their community, I think they deserve one.

I also just learned that the teams will again move the game tomorrow to the same gym. 1500 tickets will be given to each school and 250 for sale at the door. I have to get back to Minnesota, but you can darn well believe I am hoping these kids can make it all the way.

Post Comment

Name (required)

Email (required)


Enter the code shown above: