A moment of jubilation for hundreds of Fennville basketball fans turned to horror Thursday night as junior Wes Leonard collapsed on the court after celebrating his team’s dramatic victory and clinching of a perfect season Thursday night.
About two hours later, the 16-year-old Leonard died at 10:40 p.m. at Holland Hospital, said Tim Breed, the hospital’s spokesperson.
Leonard, the undefeated Blackhawks’ star player, scored the game-winning layup in a 57-55 win over Bridgman in overtime at Fennville High School. He fell to the ground amid teammates and fans who stormed the court.
“Wes arrived at Holland Hospital in cardiac arrest,” Breed said. “All efforts were made after he arrived to help restart his heart, but unfortunately, those efforts were not successful.”
Moments before he collapsed, his teammates had given him a celebratory hoist into the air before a team huddle.
Leonard is the second Fennville athlete to die in 14 months. Wrestler Nathaniel Hernandez passed away in January of 2010 after suffering a seizure at home following his participation in a high school wrestling match. He was 14.
Leonard was recovering from the flu, Fennville coach Ryan Klingler told The Sentinel Saturday night after Leonard played helped the Blackhawks win the inaugural SAC Tournament title with a win over Bangor.
“Obviously, in the midst of celebration, I think shocking is exactly the word,” Fennville Superintendent Dirk Weeldreyer said before Leonard’s ambulance left the high school. “And certainly our deepest prayers are with Wes and his family, and obviously his health is far more important than any game.”
An autopsy will likely be conducted to determine the cause of death, Breed said.
Leonard arrived at Holland Hospital in an ambulance at 9:20 p.m. Before the ambulance left the high school, an EMT appeared to hook him to a defibrillator on the court at about 8:48 p.m.
He appeared to lose consciousness after he collapsed. His teammates started shouting for help.
The gym doors were opened, letting cold air in, and about 10 people tending to him fanned his body with everything from a jersey to a clipboard prior to the EMT’s arrival.
“It’s tough to take in,” said Leonard’s teammate Shane Bale, who stood near the gym’s exit doors with a group of others as the ambulance with Leonard remained outside. “It’s like somebody from your family, you know?”
John Norton, Bridgman’s athletic director, said he didn’t see Leonard collapse, but he could tell something went wrong.
“I just heard the gym go quiet, and I went in with our team and I came back out and helped the managers clean up the bench, and I could tell by the look on people’s faces the severity of it,” said Norton, one of about 30 people remaining in the gym after Leonard’s ambulance left. “I went back in to tell my coach to keep the guys in the locker room, and they already had a pretty good idea of what was going on, and one of our players (Josiah Badger) was leading our team in a prayer when I walked back in.”
After Leonard’s ambulance left from the parking lot just outside the gym, Fennville coach Ryan Klingler led a group of teammates from outside back into the lockerroom.
A crying woman outside broadcast a prayer for Leonard on her speakerphone as the ambulance sirens blared in the distance.
“Wes is just an outstanding young man, and he has obviously been a leader for our athletic teams, and he is just an absolutely great kid,” Weeldreyer said.
The game that seemed so important — the school’s parking lots overflowed with cars, fans spilling out of the stands, watching with standing room only cheering their team to a 20-0 record — suddenly became “irrelevant.”
“It’s pretty irrelevant, yeah,” Norton said. “That was a good game, but when something like this happens, sports are pretty irrelevant.”
Leonard was a two-sport standout at Fennville and arguably the Blackhawks’ greatest athlete since Richie Jordan, a member of the National Federation of State High Schools Association’s Hall of Fame.
Earlier in the season, Leonard eclipsed 1,000 points. He scored 21 Thursday to help his team dig out of a 14-point hole against their state-ranked foe.
On the football field, Leonard quarterbacked the team to the Southwestern Athletic Conference North Division championship this season and threw seven touchdowns in the game that clinched it.
In an interview with The Sentinel at Tuesday’s practice, Klingler talked about how Leonard had a great drive to succeed and that he saw the “bigger picture.”
“That’s what makes him a little different. He takes care of his body better than probably anybody I’ve ever coached,” Klingler said Tuesday. “Spends a lot of time on his own in the weight room. He’s a special kid.”