"You can't get there from here"
Game #9-435: Cleveland State Vikings at Western Illinois LeathernecksFebruary 23, 2013 8:00 pm
-- Richard L. Harlan, TV voice of the Valparaiso Crusaders, 1946-2012
Out in the middle of nowhere in the western part of the state of Illinois is the city of Macomb, home of the Western Illinois Leathernecks, the last remaining charter member of the Mid-Continent Conference/Summit League. The football team is generally higher profile than the basketball team. In fact, for a time the St. Louis Rams held their training camp on the campus.
Western Hall is a 3 hour drive from north St. Louis, where I live, and back in the Mid-Con days I used to make the trip up to see Valpo take on the Leathernecks. They still have the old-style scoreboard and the giant figure of their mascot in the corner. Much like the Athletics Recreation Center (ARC), Western Hall is a gymnasium rather than an arena. But that's fine with me as long as the place is packed and the fans make noise. That's the thing: back in the day, the place was often half empty, even when the king of the Mid-Con paid a visit.
On his TV broadcasts of Crusader games, Dick Harlan used to talk about travel issues, and he said of the trip to Macomb, "you can't get there from here." He was, of course, exaggerating, but his point was that when he made the trip with the team, they always had to go the long way around to get there, because there was nothing close to a straight line to their destination. Normally, I had no idea what that meant, but today I scooted from Valpo's bracketbuster game to head over to see Cleveland State (fellow Horizon League school) take on the Leathernecks. This time, I was forced to take that very path that Dick spoke of, and I understood what he meant. The quickest way to get there, believe it or not, was to head up I-65 toward Chicago, then get on I-80. What I found myself doing at the behest of my GPS Android app was going almost to Moline, Iowa before cutting south on I-67, down 34 miles or so, then west again. The scenery was beautiful and the White Sox spring training opener on WSCR kept me occupied. But indeed, Macomb is out in the middle of nowhere. We used to talk on our message board about how hard it must be for them to recruit good athletes when there seems to be little to do there.
Unlike when Valpo left for the Horizon League and a few years after, this year, the Leathernecks are in 2nd place in the Summit League, one win shy of 20 for the first time in a long time, and 11-3 in conference, ahead of perennial powerhouse Oakland. They are breathing rarefied air in Macomb, and the fan turnout for this game showed it. Upwards of 4000 was the announced attendance, and the fans brought the noise for most of the game. The students were out in force and making themselves heard. The lower sections all the way around were fairly full unlike anything I'd seen in the past except that one time when the Indiana Hoosiers came to town about 8 years ago.
They still think any contact is a foul (but then Valpo fans back in those days thought so too), but they are enjoying a team that has a decent shot at an NCAA appearance. They had not lost at home in quite awhile. One of the elite teams of the Summit League hosting one of the cellar dwellers of the Horizon League, and yet both might be glitches; Gary Waters expects to be back on top next year, and who knows what will happen in Macomb next year.
But tonight, in the early going, it took a while to register just which team was which. I'm still trying to get used to the idea that Cleveland State not only is bringing up the rear but looking like a bunch of weaklings. This is the team that routinely manhandles its opponents, getting the better of them physically. They press you full court, and they're very athletic. But tonight, for a while, it was the Leathernecks who were pushing the Vikings around and running circles around them. Western Illinois rushed out to a 15-4 lead, starting off with 2 thunderdunks, though one of their players did get a bloody nose on the first possession. They looked deeper - they looked like the better team. I'm still not used to it; I don't plan to get used to it. They'll be back next year, I'm sure.
In fact, they came back tonight. It took a while but by the time the first half was over, it was as if order had been restored to the universe. However down the Vikings might be this year, the full court press is still part of their arsenal and they gradually brought it out in this game. They cut the deficit to 2 at the end of the 1st half, made their move in the 2nd half, then hung on to their lead for dear life.
They came back in part because their new phenom Bryn Forbes finally started contributing in the 2nd half. All throughout the first half, I kept wondering when he was going to join the party. Midway through the 2nd half he finally shot his first 3 and made it. Before long he'd hit 2 more. Before long Charlie Lee started taking over the game. While Cleveland State found their momentum, they did not blow their hosts out by any means. Western Illinois still had plenty of opportunities to reassert themselves.
Unfortunately, they began to look like the team I remember: ragged and turnover prone. They refused to go away, but each time they came close to tying the score, they shot themselves in the foot with less than stellar defense or unforced errors on offense.
In short, they still have a long way to go, and their lofty season is more fragile than the record might indicate. As they continually self-destructed down the stretch, the fans got more and more riled up. As he watched another call go against his team, the 'neck fan sitting next to me threw up his hands in frustration and uttered to no one in particular, "Ah, it doesn't matter. We're getting screwed again." As time was winding down with still a chance for a comeback, the Western Illinois bench was assessed a technical foul. Upon seeing the last opportunity for a comeback spiral down the drain, the entire Western Illinois crowd stood and applauded their team for losing with a rousing note of defiance. It was really a sight to see. I chuckled mockingly and sighed sadly all at the same time. It felt like a place where you didn't know how else to react to seeing your chance for a decent win go down the drain yet again.
I'm all too familiar with that sense of tragic destiny that tells you you just weren't meant for real success. Something's always going to go wrong just as you are about to get a taste of real joy. Somehow you always manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. As much as Cleveland State asserted itself in the 2nd half and did what they had to do, Western Illinois self-destructed over and over again. "We're just not meant to climb this mountain," I imagined them thinking. I imagined it, because I've often thought that way about my team. I certainly felt that way back when Valpo was still in the Mid-Con. Oh sure, we'd clean up in conference play more often than not, but play a higher profile team and we'd typically find some way to lose down the stretch in the most excruciating manner possible. It felt like we were trapped in a lifestyle of losing the big one. That magical year of 1998 is a distant spec in the rear view mirror, looking more and more like an anomaly. I'd cope by finding ways to blame the refs or the difficulties of scheduling quality non-conference opponents. I'd brace in each game for the discovery of how we were going to get screwed this time. It was a comfortable mindset, and it was disturbing to recognize it tonight. I'd hoped to see a team that had truly risen to new heights.
They still are near the top of the Summit League and they still have a shot at winning the conference. Their season isn't over yet. And their non-conference schedule has been such that their only hope of reaching the NCAA tournament is by winning the conference tournament anyway. This loss was hardly the end of the world. I'll be keeping one eye on that tournament when it takes place in Sioux Falls in a couple of weeks. Ah, the memories. Had things gone differently, I'd be in attendance myself. As pathetic as it seems to the outside world, I will always have soft spot for the Mid-Continent conference.
CLEVELAND STATE 60, at WESTERN ILLINOIS 54
CLEVELAND STATE 14-16 (5-10) -- B. Forbes 6-8 2-3 16; C. Lee 4-11 6-8 16; S. Douglas 1-6 2-2 4; T. Kamczyc 3-7 1-1 8; J. Lomomba 4-5 0-0 8; D. Long 3-5 0-0 6; M. Mason 1-1 0-0 2; L. Ndaye 0-1 0-0 0; A. Scales 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 22-45 11-14 60.
WESTERN ILLINOIS 19-7 (11-3) -- C. Clark 3-8 3-4 10; D. McAvoy III 3-5 0-0 8; A. Link 5-11 5-6 15; R. Roberts-Burnett 1-5 0-0 2; T. Parks 6-9 0-1 12; J. Foster 2-4 1-1 5; M. Ochereobia 1-1 0-0 2; J. Hawthorne 0-0 0-0 0; J. Houpt 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-43 9-12 54.
Three-point goals: CLST 5-11 (T. Kamczyc 1-3; C. Lee 2-6; B. Forbes 2-2), WIU 3-8 (C. Clark 1-4; D. McAvoy 2-2; J. Foster 0-2); Rebounds: CLST 19 (B. Forbes 4), WIU 24 (T. Parks 8); Assists: CLST 13 (C. Lee 5), WIU 13 (C. Clark 5); Total Fouls -- CLST 16, WIU 14; Fouled Out: CLST-None; WIU-None.