In 1926, Ray Hanson arrived in Macomb, Ill., as the new Athletic Director at the Western Illinois Teachers' College. Nicknamed "Rock" from his friendship with Knute Rockne, Hanson's earliest goal was to change the name of the school's athletic teams from the Howlin' Teachers to something a bit tougher.
Hanson could think of no tougher group than the very Marine Corps he served in during World War I. Second Lieutenant Hanson asked for and received permission from the USMC to use the nickname "Leathernecks" as well as the Marines' Eagle-Anchor logo. And while Western hasn't officially adopted the Marine motto Semper Fidelis -- Always Faithful -- the school's conference affiliation shows just how loyal a Leatherneck can be.
Western Illinois stands as the only charter member of the Summit League (née Mid-Continent) still with the conference. Most of the original members, such as Cleveland State, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Illinois-Chicago, and Valparaiso, left to fill in gaps in the Midwestern Conference (now Horizon League) between 1994 and 2007. But the Leathernecks' loyalty has not resulted in success. WIU has not had a winning season record, conference or overall, since 1999. Last season brought only two Summit League wins, both home wins over North Dakota State and Centenary, who was playing in their last D-I season.
South Dakota, on the other hand, is in their inaugural Summit season as part of becoming a full-fledged Division I member, and will reach such status next season. The Coyotes, pronounced western-style like "Ky-Oats", brought an 0-4 Summit mark into their first-ever game in Macomb.
And despite Western's 1-2 start to the conference season, hope begins to bloom among the dry winter prairie grass. Close call losses at Michigan and Illinois-Chicago and home against South Dakota State showed this may not be the usual kind of Leatherneck season.
Coach Jim Molinari has brought some solid talent to the western plains of Illinois. Senior Ceola Clark III leads the team in assists and steals. Freshman forward Obi Emegano and junior Terell Parks are both in the top 25 nationally in field goal percentage.
All three made their contributions known early on, Emegano hit short-range jumpers to crack the Coyotes' 2-3 matchup. Clark drilled back-to-back superhoops and fed the ball in for Clark to use his athletic advantage over the South Dakota frontcourt. But South Dakota was able to answer basket-for-basket thanks to Charlie Westbrook, who did all of the above for his team, drilling 17-footers, driving to the basket with ease, and even making a dunk off a steal late in the half. Western's lead at halftime was a single point at 28-27
It didn't take much before the Leathernecks' trio started to crack the game open. Emegano opened the half with another short-range J. Parks scored three straight baskets: a layup off a Clark assist, a FoloUpDunx, and a nice dunk off another pass from Clark.
That alley-oop sparked a 14-0 Western knockout run, and that opened up Western's game even more, setting up the first legitimate #OMGDUNX I've seen this season. With 4:45 left in the game, Ceola Clark drove the left side of the lane. With my vantage point, I could see Parks making his way toward the basket along the right baseline as Clark tossed up the ball underhanded.
I love the magic in an alley-oop. Few plays in sport match the oop in terms of anticipation. The moment one recognizes it's on the way, the prospect of seeing an athletic spectacle, the leaning forward in one's seat, the eyes opening, the breath of suspense as ball and player climb simultaneously...
Parks picked the ball cleanly out of the air 12 feet above the floor and thrust the ball through the rim with a primal scream. Clark joined him with a chest bump once Parks' feet hit the floor. 750 people strong, me included, all jumped out of their seats, and I shouted out the necessary "OH MY GOD!" making it an official OMGDUNX!
The Western Illinois lead was now 21, and as far as anyone was concerned, this game was over. Soon it actually was over, with Western bringing a 67-44 win. As for the rest of the season, the hope in Macomb is Western Illinois can finally bring back some toughness along with the Leatherneck moniker Ol' Rocky deemed fit to give his teams long ago.
at WESTERN ILLINOIS 67, SOUTH DAKOTA 44 01/03/2012
SOUTH DAKOTA 5-9 (0-5) -- C. Westbrook 8-12 2-5 18; L. Krogman 2-4 1-2 6; R. Andreotti 1-1 0-0 2; S. Tecker 1-4 0-0 3; T. Gruis 1-3 0-0 2; J. Boots 0-4 0-0 0; A. Saint-Gelias 2-6 0-1 4; N. Hilliard IV 1-6 3-4 5; B. Bos 2-4 0-0 4. Totals 18-44 6-12 44. WESTERN ILLINOIS 7-5 (2-2) -- C. Clark 7-10 0-0 19; T. Parks 5-8 0-1 10; O. Emegano 9-12 2-2 20; T. Tyler 0-3 1-2 1; J. Houpt 2-5 4-4 9; D. McAvoy III 1-4 0-0 2; J. Packer 0-0 2-2 2; D. Gebru 0-0 0-2 0; J. McDonald 1-2 2-3 4; A. Watson 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 25-46 11-16 67.
Three-point goals: SDAK 2-12 (L. Krogman 1-2; J. Boots 0-2; A. Saint-Gelias 0-3; S. Tecker 1-2; N. Hilliard IV 0-1; B. Bos 0-2), WIU 6-11 (C. Clark 5-7; T. Tyler 0-1; J. Houpt 1-2; D. McAvoy III 0-1); Rebounds: SDAK 20 (C. Westbrook 6), WIU 25 (T. Parks 9); Assists: SDAK 10 (L. Krogman 3), WIU 19 (C. Clark 7); Total Fouls -- SDAK 16, WIU 13; Fouled Out: SDAK-T. Gruis; WIU-None.