Rivals Unite for 'Never Forgotten Games'
January 24, 2018
By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
FENNVILLE – The small West Michigan towns of Fennville and Saugatuck are separated by less than 10 miles, thus sparking a longstanding rivalry that has played out in various sports through the years.
However, for one night, a special event brought the two communities together to help support a worthy cause.
The seventh-annual “Never Forgotten Games” between the neighboring communities were played Friday night at Hope College in honor of Wes Leonard, who died unexpectedly in 2011 after making the game-winning basket in overtime against rival Bridgman.
Leonard, a 16-year-old junior at the time, died from sudden cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart.
To open the night, Saugatuck’s girls defeated Fennville 55-40. Then, in a back-and-forth affair typical of a rivalry game, Fennville’s boys edged Saugatuck 48-46 and improved to 8-2 on the season.
But Fennville boys basketball coach Joe Rodriguez said the final result paled in comparison to the impact the game had on both schools.
“We circle that game on the calendar because it’s an opportunity to focus your energy on something bigger than us,” he said. “It’s not just a conference game; it’s not just another basketball game or Friday night game. It’s bigger than the game of basketball itself. It’s one of our former players that we look forward to tributing.
“Everyone was there for one reason, and that was to celebrate the legacy of Wes Leonard and to support the cause.”
The two schools joined forces to help make the night a success, including meeting in the days prior to discuss game preparations.
“Some Fennville kids came over to our school and met with some of our kids before to go over cheer and signs and just how we could help out,” Saugatuck boys basketball coach Andy Diaz said. “Our kids showed up early to help set up and help Jocelyn (Leonard, Wes' mother), so it was a real collaborative effort.”
This year Fennville’s student section, recalling some of their experiences taking part in the MHSAA’s “Battle of the Fans” the last two years, invited Saugatuck’s student section to join forces for some cheers during the game. Last week, Fennville student section leaders Kamryn Vandyke, Clay Rosema and Isabella Marquez strategized with Saugatuck’s Reece Schreckengust, Sydney Ayres and Alexa Phillips, designing and planning cheers they could do together.
The schools’ band teachers – Fennville’s Paul Andrews and Saugatuck’s Andrew Holtz – also met and planned the combined bad that played together in the same section for the entirety of Friday’s game.
“Although rival schools, both student bodies have embraced the idea that the cause is an opportunity to be a part of something greater than the game itself,” Fennville athletic director Frank Marietta said. “Both schools are very competitive on the field of play, but there is a positive and strong relationship between the students as a whole. The spirit and heart of the students from each school is what makes it such a great rivalry.”
The close-knit ties between the schools run deep.
“They know each other very well,” Diaz said. “They work at the same places during the summer, and they cross paths all the time. I have a lot of friends in Fennville.”
Rivalry games often are intense and emotional, but this one is different due to the greater significance the night holds.
“That’s the unique part of it,” Rodriguez said. “As a coach you want to talk about how it’s your rivalry game, but this one is a little different. It’s all about the events, and they play a big part in helping.”
“They are our neighbors, and when we went through (Leonard’s death) they showed a lot of support as a community to Fennville, and I think it’s awesome that they are a part of this game as well.”
Rodriguez said competing against another team in that setting just wouldn’t seem fitting.
“Because we are so close it would be weird if it was another community that we were playing,” he said. “It would feel manufactured, where this is more genuine.”
Diaz said the rivalry took on a different meaning after Leonard’s untimely passing.
“I feel very fortunate to be a part of the best small-school rivalry in the state of Michigan,” he said. “That’s our personal opinion, and when Wes passed, it definitely changed the perspective and narrative of the rivalry, especially on that game night.”
Shortly after Leonard’s tragic death, The Wes Leonard Heart Team was formed. The foundation raises money for automated external defibrillator (AED) awareness and donates AEDs to schools throughout the state.
The mission of the foundation is to honor Wes’s life using a team approach, combining the efforts of his loved ones and other existing foundations in the pursuit of a common goal. The foundation “is committed to honoring the children who have lost their lives to Sudden Cardiac Arrest and preventing other families and friends from feeling the pain of losing their loved ones. With this team approach, we feel we can give others a chance at ‘just one more game.’”
More than 260 AEDs have been put into schools through the foundation, and another 4-6 will be donated with money raised Friday.
The Never Forgotten Game hits close to home for Diaz, whose mother survived a scare almost seven years ago.
“My mom was saved by an AED,” Diaz said. “She had a heart attack in church, and one was used to revive her. They had to shock her twice, and without an AED, she’d be gone.”
Diaz, a Saugatuck graduate who coached against Leonard in football and basketball, hopes the money raised by the game can help others who may encounter the same situation.
“I gave my mom a big hug before that game because an AED saved her life, and maybe this game buys the right AED for a school that saves someone else’s life,” Diaz said. “It just put things into perspective. Obviously, we always want to win the game, but at the end of the day what really matters is the cause and Wes.
“We talked before the game about how this game is bigger than any of them. It’s not about us; it’s not about them. It’s about the entire state of Michigan at this point because of the importance of saving lives.”
Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Fennville's students cheer as a classmate brings the ball upcourt against Saugatuck on Friday. (Middle) Fennville's student section worked with Saugatuck's to cheer together during the games at Hope College. (Photos by Isabela Marquez/Fennville High School.)
Little Provides Major Stride as 1st Woman to Officiate Boys Hoops Final since 1995
By Keith Dunlap
Special for MHSAA.com
April 13, 2023
Delonda Little was already a trailblazer to many before this year’s MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals.
But what happened last month at Breslin Center made her even more of one on a statewide level.
A referee and assigner for 20 years in the Detroit area, Little is a female boys and girls basketball official who mentors both male and female referees – no matter the gender or level, as she officiates high school and college games.
Officials often go to Little for guidance, direction and assignments, which has made her respected for years throughout Metro Detroit in the prep basketball community. Then, her status as a trailblazer grew even more.
Little was assigned as an official for the Division 3 Boys Basketball Final between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis, and she became the first female referee to officiate an MHSAA Boys Basketball Final since Traverse City’s Barb Beckett 1995.
“It was a very good feeling to know I was the one selected,” said Little, who officiated the Final with Matt Olson and Zach Porritt.
In fact, while attending a Semifinal game the Friday before the Final, Little received a phone call from an area code she didn’t recognize.
She answered, and it was Beckett.
“At first I didn’t know the name,” Little said. “I said, ‘No, I don’t know you, but that’s fine.’”
Beckett then explained she was the first female referee to be assigned a Boys Basketball Final, and just wanted to offer support to Little.
At that point, Little became excited and thankful she answered the call.
“It was very nice to hear from her because she wanted to reach out and if not pass the torch, to congratulate me,” Little said.
Little, 51, said she found out she was going to be refereeing the Division 3 boys championship game just before the start of the postseason when she received an email from the MHSAA.
“I’m looking at the email and I’m like, boys?” Little said. “I was shocked.”
But she was shocked in a good way, and obviously excited for the honor.
Little didn’t find out until a couple of days before the St. Francis/Beecher contest that she would be officiating that specific championship game, but the Monday of boys championship week was when she really started to receive congratulations from friends and colleagues.
That’s when an article came out in the Detroit News detailing her selection, which led to countless calls, texts and congratulatory messages on social media.
“I couldn’t even (keep up with the comments),” she said. “That’s how overwhelming the actual tags were. It came from all across the state with officials, men and women, because I do women’s college (games). Some of the college ladies were reaching out. I was getting all the hoopla before the game.”
Little said she normally doesn’t get nervous for games, but not having some nerves became a bit harder once so many people knew of her achievement.
However, she settled into a normal routine quickly once the game started.
“I wanted to get it done, get it over with and do well,” she said.
Little did do well, which is no surprise to everyone who knew her before she officiated on the boys championship stage.
It was just another feather in the cap for Little, who in 2016 became the first woman to officiate a boys Detroit Public School League championship game.
“Delonda is one of the top officials in the Detroit area, and our staff doesn’t look at Delonda as a female working a boys game – we see one of the top officials in Detroit working a basketball game,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “There are females officiating in the NBA and female officials in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The aspect that made Delonda’s selection for this MHSAA championship game nearly unique will soon be the norm at all levels of athletics.”
Little graduated from Detroit Osborn in 1989 and starred on the basketball court at Wayne State, earning induction into WSU’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2005.
Her day job is as an officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections, but her passion is officiating. She’s been an MHSAA-registered official for basketball for two decades and also was registered for volleyball for four years. This past fall she registered for football for the first time.
“I get something from it because it keeps me in shape, I love the people I work with and I like the kids,” Little said. “You are always teaching, and I like training the newer officials. I just enjoy it. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t refereeing.”
Going forward, Little hopes her championship game assignment will now be an inspiration for other female referees.
“There aren’t very many women who would like to work boys basketball or feel comfortable,” Little said. “If that’s something they desire, I’m hoping more women are selected to work the games if they feel comfortable.”
Keith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties
PHOTOS (Top) Delonda Little takes her position on the court during the Division 3 Boys Basketball Final on March 25 at Breslin Center. (Middle) Little monitors the action between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis.