Monday night was a tragic ending to a record-breaking season for Western Illinois. In the Summit League Tournament quarterfinals at Sioux Falls Arena, S.D., the Leathernecks were defeated by North Dakota State 55-43, which ended Western’s hopes of going to the NCAA Tournament.
Perhaps even more unfortunate than the defeat was the gruesome injury to senior point guard Ceola Clark with just under 10 minutes remaining in the second half. After Clark recorded a steal, he got tangled up with a Bison player, and remained on the ground for a few moments, attempting to tie his shoe.
From the view at press row, it appeared that his leg was shaking, but Clark opted to remain in the game. The next Leatherneck possession, Clark attempted to drive inside, set his feet and appeared ready to throw up a shot after making contact with a defender, but then immediately threw the ball outside and fell to the floor screaming in agony.
“It was just heartbreaking to see that happen to Ceola and that's really the story,” said Leathernecks head coach Jim Molinari. “So we're just praying for Ceola and hopefully it's not as bad as it appears. He's given his body, his heart and he's given everything to our program so it was just tragic to see that happen to him tonight."
However, Molinari said the injury appeared serious. Although nothing has been confirmed yet, it is thought that Clark may have torn his ACL.
“Well, it's bad, I think,” Molinari said. “But I'm not a doctor. I think it's his knee. You can't always tell how bad they go down. So I didn't say anything (to him), just tried to hold his hand.”
While Clark was on the ground in pain, the whole arena fell silent. The only thing that could be heard was Clark’s cries of pain. Athletic trainers, Molinari, Western players - and even North Dakota State head coach Saul Phillips – immediately rushed to Clark’s side.
As Clark was carried off the court by the training staff, every fan in the arena – whether they rooted for South Dakota State, North Dakota State, or Western – and even a few members from press row, rose to their feet and gave him thunderous applause.
It was a bitter ending for an otherwise outstanding career for Clark – who is the all-time program leader in steals, 3-pointers made, games played and is second all-time in assists and ranks top-10 in career points. Not to mention, he is the only player in Summit League history to win defensive player of the year twice in a career.
Clark also played a large part into completely changing the Western basketball program. Two seasons ago, the Leathernecks were just 7-23. Last season however, they earned a Summit League Championship berth, followed by the team’s first postseason tournament appearance in Division I history (the CBI).
Fast forward to this season, where the Leathernecks achieved a 22-7 record, and earned a share of the conference title for the first time in the school’s Division I era. Unfortunately, he also experienced his fair share of injuries, as this one will be the third season-ending injury Clark has suffered in his career.
Senior Jack Houpt, who played three years with Clark and was also his roommate couldn’t help but feel sorrow.
“It was real tough,” Houpt said. “I've been here with him since the beginning and helped put this program on the map, and all the hard work we put in together and how he sacrificed his body so much like Coach Mo said. And also, just being his roommate is also just terrible to see this happening to him. He's just played through so many injuries. This is, what? His third ACL tear? I think. So, it's just, it's terrible.”
For Western, this was the second devastating injury that the team has dealt with this season. A few weeks ago, senior center Terell Parks suffered a foot injury, and did not play the remainder of the season. Parks was recently named the Summit League Defensive Player of the Year, and led the Leathernecks in scoring (12.7 points per game), rebounding (9.6 per game), and blocks (65 on the season.)
Parks shot around with the team in warm ups prior to Monday’s game, but Molinari said he just couldn’t go.
“You know, Terrell did everything to play today but he just couldn't move,” Molinari said. “So, yeah, I'm proud of all of them. I was hoping we'd still play some more so I think we have a good chance. It's been a great senior class. I'm proud of Western. I'm proud of everyone that came. We had a tremendous presence. You have to remember, the first year that we were here. We might have had more people here than we had at our first home game. And just the whole school, it's a tremendous school with tremendous leadership. People care about the right things, they really care about student-athletes and our presence here was exciting—that's what made it disappointing.”
What is interesting though, is how respected Clark and Parks are throughout the Summit League. Despite his team’s advancement to the Summit League Championship for the first time since 2009, Phillips didn’t hesitate to acknowledge the pair in his opening statement.
“First thing I want to say is our thoughts go out to Ceola,” Phillips said. “Between Ceola and Terell (Parks), there isn't a tandem that's done more to elevate a program in this league. It needs to be pointed out what Ceola and Terell have done for that program under the guidance of an unbelievable coach and very great person coach Molinari. Each year we've played them, they've gotten better and better. The job he has done there is phenomenal.”
Despite Western’s remarkable season, one can’t help but think “what if.”
Previously, the Leathernecks had defeated the Bison twice, and had Parks and Clark – two first team conference players – both been healthy, maybe the season would have ended differently for Western.
But alas, it’s the way it ended. While the season is not quite over yet, as the Leathernecks will without a doubt secure a bid in some postseason tournament, Western fans everywhere need to remember who brought this program to the standards it now holds.
When the championship banner is raised next season in Western Hall, Clark’s and Parks’ sacrifices and dedication shouldn’t be forgotten. And, when the Leathernecks finally make the Big Dance, it will be easy to point to which group of players started the foundation for it.