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High school player collapses, dies after winning shot

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Associated Press
3/4/2011 4:20:04 PM
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FENNVILLE, Mich. -- It was the perfect shot to end a perfect season. Then came the tragedy so unthinkable it didn't seem real.

Wes Leonard's game-winning layup in overtime brought the Fennville High School crowd to its feet, and joyous teammates and fans quickly surrounded their star player. A moment later, Leonard collapsed and died. He was just 16.

A day later, with the death blamed on an enlarged heart, this small town near Lake Michigan remembered an "all-American kid" whose athletic heroics had been local legend since middle school, when opposing coaches sometimes asked to see his birth certificate, not believing someone so young could be so skilled.

"He was a good kid, a good friend to have and a good person to hang around with," DeMarcus McGee, who played football and basketball with Leonard, said between sobs. "You never thought it could be him. He was so healthy.

"It shouldn't happen."

On Thursday evening, Leonard scored with less than 30 seconds remaining in the game. The final shot gave Fennville a 57-55 victory over Bridgman High and a 20-0 regular season.

After the teams exchanged handshakes, Fennville players scrambled together for a team photo to commemorate their undefeated record. That's when the six-foot-two, 215-pound Leonard collapsed.

"Thirty seconds earlier, he was laying in the winning bucket," said Ryan Klingler, basketball coach in Fennville, about 320 kilometres west of Detroit. "And then 10 seconds later ... everything's pulled out from under you, from out of nowhere."

Leonard was rushed to nearby Holland Hospital, where paramedics performed CPR before he was pronounced dead. An autopsy conducted Friday by the Ottawa County medical examiner showed Leonard died of cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart.

"It shouldn't have been like this," teammate Adam Siegel said. "Too young."

Grief counsellors were available Friday for students at the school. Delivery trucks dropped off trays full of flowers. Students made signs in tribute to Leonard and planned to display them in the hallways.

Many who knew Leonard said he was destined for athletic greatness from a young age. He was a top performer in baseball and football, too.

Vicki Lepior, who owns a roofing company, used to coach baseball against Leonard when he was a fourth-grader.

"When I saw him pitch, I told my boys, 'You better move back in the box just a little bit,' " Lepior said of the boy she called "Big Man Wes."

"He was just the kid that everybody loved, and there isn't a mother on Earth who doesn't feel (what his mother) feels."

Chad VanHuis, who once umpired Leonard's middle-school baseball games, remembered opposing coaches asking to see his birth certificate.

"He was very courteous. He was the nicest kid. You'd think with his star potential, because he's so gifted, he'd be cocky, but he never really was that way," VanHuis said.

When he reached Fennville High, Leonard really took off, playing as a starter for three years on the football team, first as a receiver, then as a quarterback and defensive end.

"He had a personality that, when people were around him, they played better," said Tim Schipper, Leonard's football coach. "Everybody around him played better, because he was a leader and the best athlete."

Schipper had expected Leonard to take his talents to the U.S. college ranks at some level, although his prospects were unclear.

Leonard, who played basketball as a freshman and then spent two seasons as a starter, led the Blackhawks throughout the 2010 season.

"He was just an amazing kid," Klingler said. "What made him special is he had a passion about everything he did.

"That's what separated him -- his passion. He had a passion to compete. He had a passion to be his best."

The Fennville team was scheduled to compete in the district playoffs Monday, but school officials had not decided Friday whether to play the game.

"That's way, way down the road," Klingler said. "We're going to make sure we're all in a good, healthy place before we decide on anything."

Leonard's mother, Jocelyn, is a choir teacher at the middle and high schools and director of Fennville High's production of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." A performance of the musical scheduled for Friday was cancelled, and it was uncertain whether the Saturday and Sunday shows would happen, either.

Fennville Superintendent Dirk Weeldreyer remembered Leonard as "the quintessential all-American kid."

"Beyond his outstanding athletic abilities, Wes was a better person," Weeldreyer said. "His fellow students liked and respected him.

"Their grief speaks volumes about the high regard in which Wes was held."

Basketball (Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
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