Last night Leatherneck Nation watched one of its greatest warriors take the court for the last time. When Ceola Clark went down, with what appeared to be an excruciatingly painful knee injury, late in the second half it signaled the end of a historical and magical season for a team that has once again given the fans in Western Hall something to cheer about. For decades now Basketball at Western Illinois University has disappointed. Then in 2008 a tough minded, defensive oriented, well-traveled coach was hired to come in and change the culture. Jim Molinari has done just that as is evidenced by the 40 wins in the last two seasons, including the most wins in a season since the program became Division I, as well as garnering its first ever regular season conference championship.
For the last two years this team led by the sometimes mercurial Coach “Mo” has given back hope to the faithful. Essentially this same team out performed a ninth place pick in a pre-season Summit League poll last year by coming one shot away from putting on Cinderella’s shoe and going dancing for the first time in Western history. This year’s team came in with much higher expectations. A sixth year of eligibility for Clark and the return of one of the best big men to ever lace them up at WIU (Terrell Parks) gave us all something to look forward to this season.
Ceola, one of the all-time leaders in most statistical categories at Western, playing the role of floor general gave Mo the luxury of having a coach on the floor. Terrell Parks complimented this dynamic duo by bringing a combination of power and athleticism rarely seen at the mid-major level. These two First-Team All Summit League stars helped to bring a more high flying, exciting brand of basketball to Western Hall. Alley-oop dunks and no look passes coupled with a smothering defense and hustle produced twenty two wins and a swelling optimism that this team could make the ultimate break through and represent Western Illinois University in the big dance hosted by the NCAA each March. Then a week before the regular season ended, the Summit League Defensive Player of the Year—Parks, went down with a foot injury that would end his college career. After three gutsy wins without the man in the middle the Necks were battling to the bitter end in a tournament semi-final game with a very good NDSU team when the right knee of Ceola Clark popped bringing tears and disbelief from an on looking crowd in Sioux Falls and Macomb. And just like that it was over. No Cinderella slippers. No selection show at the Sports Corner. Just a very long, quiet bus ride back to Macomb.
Sure, a long list of goals and accomplishments were checked off the list. There is much to be proud of but the ultimate prize once again eluded these guys thus eluding us. No need to book that ticket to a destination spot to play a heralded one or two seed. I suppose it is of little consolation to these grinders and hard wood warriors that it was them that brought back life to the venue that has heard more crickets than capacity crowds in the last thirty years. One could have received some great odds in Vegas in October about the number of crowds over 4000 there would be in Western Hall this year yet it happen multiple times. It was these young men of character that made basketball a buzz word around town again. They have brought the excitement back to Saturday nights and Monday lunches as us fourth row guys expound on what it all must mean. They did it with a smile and they did it with honor. They were as good off the floor as they were on it. They represented in the classroom and the community. These are guys you want to get behind. When that bus rolls into the q-lot tonight for the final time it will be bitter sweet. It will be sad to see such competitors come home vanquished when we are all thinking the same thing. “What if those guys didn’t get hurt---could we have made it? Could we have put on the slippers and gone to the ball?” We will never know.
What we do know is that we have twenty two wins to celebrate and those unforgettable dunks and beautiful passes. We have those big crowds and a community that cares again. We have the memories of two of the best players to ever wear a jersey in the history of Western Basketball. We were able to be right there close up to bear witness. We have our faith back. We believe again. The old, wily, salty haired pied piper head coach is whistling a tune we can all follow---and for that we can all be grateful and thankful. It truly was a season to remember.