Season turns into nightmare in Fennville

What had been a dream ending to a perfect regular season for the high school basketball team in the small southwest Michigan community of Fennville turned swiftly and tragically into something worse than a nightmare.

You can awaken from a nightmare, shake away the demons and drift back into reality.

There is no shaking away the horrific reality at the Fennville High School gymnasium Thursday night when Wes Leonard, the school’s star in basketball and football, collapsed on the court moments after making a game-winning basket.

Leonard was pronounced dead at Holland Hospital about two hours later. He was 16.

An autopsy report Friday revealed that Leonard died from a heart attack due to dilated cardiomyopathy.

Dr. David Start, the Ottawa County medical examiner, said in a statement the condition is also referred to as an enlarged heart, which becomes weakened and can not pump blood efficiently. The decreased heart function can affect the lungs, liver, and other body systems.

Start was not immediately available for comment on the autopsy.

There aren’t enough words or shared experiences to accurately describe what those close to Leonard and his family must be going through as they come to grips with the loss of a young man whose presence produced such joy and whose future held so much promise.

“He’s always been a great kid,” said Jon Schultz, a reporter for the Holland Sentinel who covered Thursday night’s game. “I interviewed him a good four or five times within the past two or three weeks. He always greets you with a smile.”

Schultz described the shift in mood when Leonard collapsed in one word: “shock.”

Leonard made a driving layup with 26 seconds left in overtime for what proved to be the final basket in a 57-55 victory over Bridgman. Bridgman’s last shot, a three-point attempt, was off the mark.

Nothing seemed amiss as a routine postgame celebration began. The win made Fennville 20-0 going into its game scheduled for Monday in Michigan’s state championship tournament. Fennville competes in Class D.

Players and coaches on both teams went through the handshake line. Fennville’s gym was packed beyond capacity, and fans rushed the court to congratulate their winners.

Leonard’s teammates hoisted him in the air, then put him down to form the team huddle.

Suddenly, something was shockingly wrong. Leonard had collapsed to the court.

Joy turned to concern, then disbelief as an emergency medical team on hand was called in.

Schultz was taking notes for a detailed account in Friday’s Holland Sentinel. According to his notes, he first noticed that Leonard had crumpled to the court at 8:40 p.m. EST. The medical team began working on him at 8:48. Five minutes later, Leonard was taken from the gym to an ambulance, and from there to Holland Hospital.

At 10:40, Holland Hospital spokesman Tim Breed announced that Leonard had arrived at the hospital in cardiac arrest and had died. An autopsy to determine cause of death is likely, Breed said, according to the Sentinel story.

The Fennville community plunged into mourning.

Fennville, about 200 miles west of Detroit, has a population of about 1,500. It is 15 miles south of Holland, a city best known for its annual Tulip Festival. The entire urbanized area’s population is around 100,000.

Fennville has a rich athletic history. Leonard was regarded as Fennville’s best athlete in nearly a half century — since Richie Jordan, known as the “Fennville Flash” and a member of the National High School Sports Hall of Fame, starred in basketball in the mid-1960s.

Fennville has experienced recent tragedy, too. Wrestler Nathaniel Hernandez suffered a seizure at home and died after competing in a wrestling match in January 2010. Hernandez was 14.

Leonard was a multitalented athlete. He played quarterback on Fennville’s football team and threw seven touchdown passes in a 2010 game.

His versatility on the basketball court allowed coach Ryan Klingler to use him at a variety of positions. At 6 foot 4, Leonard could bring the ball up the court, dish it off to the other guard, then post up down low or slide out to the wing.

In an interview with the Sentinel on Tuesday, Klingler spoke of how Leonard lifted weights on his own and took care of his body.

“He’s a special kid,” Klingler said in the story.

Game nights in Fennville are typical of any small town, with a gathering that is part social and part sports event.

“There’s a lot of school pride, with the football team and the basketball team,” said Alan Babbitt, sports editor of the Sentinel.

“It’s a community swelling with pride. It was kind of a dream season for a winner in a small time from Michigan.

“I don’t know how to process it. It’s so unfair. He’s a good kid, a terrific athlete.”

Thursday night became a time for communal grieving.

When it was apparent that Leonard’s situation was grim, the public address announcer asked fans to vacate the gym. The gym doors were opened to let cool air in, hoping it would help.

John Norton, athletic director for visiting Bridgman, told the Sentinel that he asked his coach to keep the players in the locker room. One player led the team in prayer, Norton said.

Outside the gym, Schultz said he saw a woman holding her cell phone in the air.

“She had her cell phone on the speaker phone,” Schultz said. “On the other line, another woman was saying a prayer for Wes.

“That struck me.”