March Madness is upon us. The first round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament begins tomorrow in Dayton, Ohio and my hometown team, SU, plays Friday. The NCAA tourney isn’t the only championship event basketball fans are excited about today, though. This afternoon at 5 o’clock, two undefeated high school teams from Fennville and Schoolcraft, MI face off in the regional semi-finals. This game is significant because Fennville, MI is the home of Wes Leonard, the 16-year-old star player who died of a heart attack March 3rd after making the winning shot for the Blackhawks.
Fortunately for the team, their coach has some sage advice about how to play while grieving.
Blackhawks coach Ryan Klingler said after Friday’s win, “I think someone said in the locker room that Wes is giving us extra strength. No doubt we are playing with Wes in our hearts, where on Monday we played with a heavy heart. Now, we’re playing with him in our mind and in our soul, and that’s giving us an edge.” Wes’s younger brother, 13-year-old Mitchell, was emotional as he accepted the team’s trophy after their 51-48 win in front of 3,614 spectators.
Wes’s teammates aren’t focused on winning, but rather on honoring their fallen friend. Xavier Grigg, who has been playing in place of Wes, says all the media attention “doesn’t matter,” adding, “I’d rather have Wes here than be on ESPN or be 23-0.” Coach Klinger has maintained an important perspective on playing in the wake of the team’s loss. “Wes had great passion to compete and that’s what I’ve called upon these guys to do when they step on the floor,” he said Friday. “We don’t play for him. We play with him in our hearts. We can play the way he played. He played with a toughness and a competitiveness that would very rarely be defeated.”