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This time of year, Ceola Clark lets his mind take him back, back to the good old days when March Madness brought mostly happiness.
The former Warren basketball star likes to reminisce with old teammates about the days of sectional championship battles at Waukegan, and of hopeful marches to the supersectional.
With Clark leading the way, Warren was Lake County's perennial power. The Blue Devils played in four sectionals and advanced to two supersectionals during his four-year career from 2004 to 2007.
"I was just talking the other day with (former Warren standout) Marvin Bembry about some of our games back then," Clark said. "It brings back a lot of memories about being on a successful team in March and being part of a winning program.
"It's cool that I'm finally part of a winning program at Western, too."
The 6-foot-3 Clark is the starting point guard, top playmaker and best 3-point shooter at Western Illinois, which is 19-7 and in the midst of one of its best seasons in recent memory.
With wins over Kansas City and South Dakota in their final two games, the Leathernecks would earn at least a share of the Summit League title. Then it would be on to next week's conference tournament with a top seed and high hopes of earning the league's automatic NCAA tournament bid, not to mention the program's first ticket to the big dance in about 25 years.
Last year, Western Illinois came oh-so-close to breaking through, losing in the Summit League championship game in overtime by two points. For Clark, the disappointment of that shortcoming brought back some of his other March memories. The not-so-happy ones.
"The two times we got to the supersectional when I was at Warren, we didn't make it downstate. We lost to Glenbrook North with Jon Scheyer (who went on to play at Duke) and we lost to Stevenson at the Sears Centre," Clark said. "That feeling of being right there, so close to state, that was so hard. That's what I felt last year. We were so close to the NCAA tournament and it just slipped away.
"That's a big regret for me, and I don't want to have any regrets when I leave (Western Illinois). It's one of the main reasons I came back to Western for this last year. I want to put Western on the map."
For the longest time, though, Clark wasn't sure he'd get the chance.
He was stuck in NCAA red-tape limbo for weeks last spring, waiting to hear if his petition for a sixth year of eligibility would be granted.
Clark was being tormented from all directions. The wait was brutal, but so was the empty feeling in his stomach. Not making the NCAA tournament last year wasn't the only thing that had left him feeling incomplete. Same could be said for his entire career.
Clark has weathered two significant injuries that have kept him off the floor for two full seasons.
Last year was Clark's fifth year at Western Illinois, yet only his third full season as a healthy athlete. He was hoping and praying that he'd get one more season to play ball … a sixth year to complete the four seasons he had originally signed up for.
"It was very stressful because I applied for the sixth year last March and I didn't hear until May," Clark said. "The NCAA would come back and need more paperwork or something else. Each and every day, I was wondering if I would be coming back or if I was done.
"I really wanted to keep playing because I had worked so hard to get my game back."
Clark first came to Western Illinois for the 2007-08 season and got right to work, turning heads in preseason practices and pushing the older, veteran guards for immediate playing time. But in the Leathernecks' first exhibition game, Clark tore up his knee so badly that every ligament but one needed to be surgically repaired.
He returned the following season as a redshirt freshman and led Western Illinois in steals, tallying the ninth most steals for a single season in school history. During the next season as a sophomore, he was named the Summit League's defensive player of the year.
Then, Clark got cut off at the knees again … by his toe.
A severely dislocated toe kept him out of all but six games of the following season, the 2010-11 campaign.
"Sometimes, when I was injured, I wondered if I should even be playing anymore," Clark said. "Maybe I wasn't meant to keep playing. But I'm a big believer in God and I prayed about it. The trainers and conditioning coaches really worked on me so I could have a chance."
Last year, healthy again, Clark earned his second Summit League defensive player of the year award and was also named second-team all-conference.
Now, in his final run, Clark is averaging 11.7 points per game, which is second-best on the team. He leads Western Illinois with 56 3-pointers and ranks third in the Summit League with 4.2 assists per game.
Passing the ball is his favorite part of the game, just like it was at Warren.
"I like it when I'm able to get everyone involved and when I can be a leader," said Clark, who averaged about 13 points and 6 assists per game as a senior at Warren. "I want the coaches to be able to trust me to run the offense and run the team and I want the guys to be able to look to me to set things up and lead.
"I think I could do all those things really well at the next level."
Clark, who got his degree in business with a minor in marketing and has been in graduate school for more than a year now, should be in good shape when it's time to settle down into a real job. But for now, he has his sights set on more basketball.
Playing the last two years without an injury has energized him and left him thirsting for more. He would love to work out for an NBA team, but is also intrigued about the possibility of playing professionally overseas.
"I might not play against top-tier competition on a daily basis, but I think I can compete with those guys if someone gives me a chance," Clark said.
Good point. Look what Clark did with his extra chance from the NCAA.