Fennville prevails over Saugatuck in annual game honoring Wes Leonard
It had been nearly six years since the Fennville boys’ basketball team last played a game at the DeVos Fieldhouse on the campus of Hope College.
That’s when, in March 2011, the Blackhawks played their three district games there to accommodate the large number of fans who wanted to come out and support the team following the tragic death of star forward Wes Leonard.
On Friday, Jan. 27, Fennville made its triumphant return to DeVos Fieldhouse against archrival Saugatuck as part of the sixth annual Never Forgotten game.
And it wasn’t the fact that the Blackhawks won the game 76-61 that made the return triumphant. Rather, it was the fact that the game helped the Wes Leonard Heart Team continue its mission to raise money to place automated external defibrillators in schools across Michigan.
Leonard died of cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart after hitting the game-winning shot to cap a perfect 20-0 regular season for Fennville.
Fennville coach Joe Rodriguez was an assistant coach for Fennville during the 2010-11 season.
“Being back in this building brought back a lot of memories from the last time we played here,” Rodriguez said. “The message I shared with the guys is that this is bigger than a basketball game, just like those games were.
“The guys I this team grew up watching Wes play. They looked up to him. So this game is about honoring his legacy and making a difference in a positive way.”
Saugatuck coach Andy Diaz agreed.
“No matter what happens, this game is bigger than any of us,” Diaz said. “The kids understand that. Not that it makes it easy to lose, but that’s the way it is.”
As for the game itself, the score remained tight throughout much of the first three quarters. In fact, the teams were deadlocked at 41-41 with 2:44 remaining following a free throw by Saugatuck’s Blake Dunn.
That’s when Fennville started to pull away.
The Blackhawks closed the third period on a 10-2 scoring run, with Ben Renkema scoring seven of those points.
That gave Fennville a 51-43 lead, which the Blackhawks extended to 54-43 following a 3-pointer by JP Alfaro to open the final frame.
The Fennville lead never got lower than eight points the rest of the way, growing to its 15-point final margin as the Blackhawks closed the game with a 3-point play from Austin Lewis and a 3-pointer from Luke Garpow.
“They are a really deep team and they can all shoot,” Diaz said of Fennville. “It doesn’t matter who it is. They all can shoot.”
That depth was on full display as five Fennville players scored nine or more points.
Alfaro, who jumpstarted the Blackhawk offense with 12 first-quarter points, led the way with 17, while Lewis and Julian Martinez-Grigg were close behind with 16 each. Felipe Martinez and Renkema added 10 and nine respective points.
“When we play to our strengths, we are pretty difficult to match up with,” Rodriguez said. “That’s the best we’ve done all season moving the ball, especially at the end of quarters.”
The game ended with the student section from both schools chanting “Wes-ley Leo-nard,” has as been the case at the end of all six Never Forgotten games.
“I don’t hear a lot of stuff from the crowd during the game, but tonight I immediately heard it and recognized (the chant),” Rodriguez said. “As competitive as the game is, it’s a quick reminder of why we’re here.
“You hear that name and it immediately brings you back to all of those emotions. It just means the world because you remind yourself why you’re here.”
Blake Dunn led Saugatuck with 18 points, followed by Brad Dunn with 13, Jackson Shriver with 11 and Teaque Tiemeyer with 10.
“This game is about honoring Wes,” Blake Dunn said. “That’s why we play this game. He loved to play the game and he’d want us out there competing against each other.”