Everett’s Leandre Wright finding his game | Current Sports | WKAR
LANSING - An hour before tipoff, the line stretched out the door and into the parking lot.
Fans didn’t seem to mind the cool evening air as they waited patiently for a chance to watch Lansing Everett battle Kalamazoo Central for a Class A regional championship.
The gym filled long before tipoff with fans uncomfortably seated elbow-to-elbow. Those on time found refuge by sitting in aisle. And fans arriving 30 minutes before game time were forced to the standing room only section.
A year ago, none of this was possible. Everett wasn’t playing meaningful games in March, and wasn’t attracting these types of crowds.
But this season is different.
Guard LeAndre Wright is a multi-sport athlete who has played a huge role for the Vikings this season. Everett coach Desmond Ferguson called him the best defensive player in the area and with a knack for making clutch plays.
Wright joined the program three years ago and has witnessed the remarkable turnaround.
“This was a program everyone doubted,” Wright said. “We’ve been proving doubters wrong every step of the way.”
Plenty of doubt circled the team before the regional championship game, as experts saw Everett’s playoff journey ending against Central. Opinions were based on Everett’s inexperience, to Central having defeated the Vikings, 60-54, on Dec. 27.
But this time the feel was different.
A sea of blue and red filled the stands, creating an atmosphere equivalent to a home game for Everett.
In the middle of the third quarter, the Vikings trailed 43-36, before reeling off a 13-0 run to take the lead for good. The crowd roared with excitement, the stands shook and it sounded like a fighter jet landed on the court.
The team thrived off the energy, capturing a 91-78 victory and the program’s first regional championship since 2004 – also the year the team won its last state championship.
After the buzzer sounded, reporters flocked to Ferguson, shooting guard Jamyrin Jackson and Mr. Basketball candidate Trevor Manuel.
On the other end of the court stood Wright. The junior couldn’t stop smiling as he extended the championship trophy toward the heavens and celebrated enthusiastically with teammates.
Twenty minutes later, Wright sat on an empty bench and stared out toward the increasingly dwindling crowd and reflected on the moment.
“It definitely feels great,” Wright said, as the wide smile still hadn’t escaped his face. “After having a few bad seasons this means a lot to us. It makes winning a lot better. All the people that doubted us now want to be on our side.”
The moment punctuated the stunning reversal of fortune for the proud program. The same team that only won several games combined over the past few years now recorded its 23rd win of this season. And two more victories are needed compete for a state championship at the Breslin Center.
“We’ve been working hard,” Wright said. “In the offseason, Saturday’s, Sunday’s and anytime we can get in the gym and work.”
Wright said inexperience played a role in early season losses to Central and Grand Ledge, but believes the team has clicked ever since.
“At the end of the day, we came together as a team after the loss (to Grand Ledge),” Wright said. “It helped us build togetherness and we knew we had to do that in order to achieve our goal.”
Following the two losses, Everett is on a 17-game winning streak, including defeating Grand Ledge in the regular season, and eliminating the Comets and Central from the playoffs.
The junior points to Ferguson as a reason behind this team gaining experience and chemistry on the court.
“He gets us in the gym 24-7,” Wright said, as he laughed. “Its push, push, push in practice. He makes us that much better every day.”
Although Oregon-signee Manuel receives credit for the turnaround, Wright credits the evolution of multiple players for the successful season.
“If they (critics) come to the games, they’ll realize it’s not just about Trevor,” Wright said. “It’s about the whole team. Everyone on the roster is part of the puzzle.”
Wright is at the forefront of players taking a major development step this season.
“He’s one of our best defenders,” Manuel said. “He brings it every game and leaves everything out on the court. He does what it takes to win. He doesn’t care about scoring or anything. Whatever he needs to do, that’s what he does.”
Wright, a 6-foot-3 guard, said Everett’s strength is its defense.
“That’s what I take my pride in (defense),” Wright said. “Offense is going to come, but defense wins championships and that’s what I start with.”
But Wright has become more than just a defensive specialist. His role on offense has steadily increased as the season progresses. He has improved his shooting, dribbling and playmaking. Wright has stepped up in the playoffs, becoming a third option on offense behind Manuel and Jackson.
“I always joke with ‘Dre and say he’s not a shooter,” Ferguson said. “Then he always hits a big three in the fourth quarter and that’s the type of guy he is. We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time but these guys believe in each other and that’s what it takes to win ball games.”
Wright’s big moments in the playoffs include nailing a momentum changing 3-pointer against East Lansing in the districts and providing 13 points against Central.
“When I get in the gym that’s what I work on [offense],” Wright said. “Because I know at some point that’s what the team is going to need.”
And that point will come sooner than later. Once the season is officially over, Everett will lose Manuel to graduation and needs to replace his production. The senior averages 24 points and 12 rebounds per game. Wright said he plans to continue his development and provide leadership.
“I’m very excited (for the expanded role),” Wright said. “I’ll push my teammates, especially the up (and) coming ones.”
Meanwhile, Everett returns to the Breslin Center this weekend to compete for a state championship. The Vikings defeated Michigan State-signee Deyonta Davis and Muskegon, 75-52, in the quarterfinals Tuesday night.
At this time last year, Everett’s basketball season was long over. The coaching staff and team worked relentlessly over the summer preparing for this moment. The Vikings have given the community something to be proud of and in return they have filled gymnasiums.
“It means a lot to us,” Wright said. “Having the whole community behind us and depending on us to win a state championship and bring Everett back on the map. It means a lot to us.”