By MATT SCHUCKMAN
Herald-Whig Sports Editor
MACOMB, Ill. -- It sounded funny to hear Ceola Clark III say it, but it made perfect sense.
The adrenalin rush the season opener brought made him feel like a freshman again.
"It was like taking the court for the first time," said Clark, a sixth-year senior on the Western Illinois University men's basketball team. "A lot of excitement, a lot of anxiousness."
And a lot to be thankful for, too.
The Leathernecks are enjoying their best start in more than 50 years, carrying a 14-3 record and 11-game winning streak into Thursday's home game against South Dakota State. Clark is at the controls, leading WIU in assists (73), steals (29) and 3-point shooting (36 of 81),while sitting second in scoring (11.9 ppg).
"This has been an historic run," Clark said. "It has been incredible, but you can't dwell on it or be satisfied by it. We have to think about what's next."
That's experience talking.
Clark knows better than anyone to savor the moment, look forward to the future and put the past behind you.
Granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA after losing two seasons due to injury, Clark admittedly feels blessed everything has worked out as well as it has. He said WIU coach Jim Molinari, the coaching staff and the athletic department administration gave him complete support and worked with the NCAA to make this possible.
"WIU has been a great family and a great place for me," Clark said. "Everyone around here ... I owe so much to."
Their reward is seeing Clark play.
As a freshman, Clark blew out his knee in the first exhibition game and took a medical redshirt, leaving him four years of eligibility. He returned healthy the next year and developed into the best defensive guard in the Summit League, earning Defensive Player of the Year honors as a sophomore in 2010.
Then injury struck again. Six games into the 2010-11 season, Clark suffered a toe injury that sidelined him the rest of the season. He never expected to get that year back.
So he poured everything into last year, garnering Summit League Defensive Player of the Year honors once again while leading the Leathernecks to their first postseason tournament as an NCAA Division I program. The season ended with a loss to Oregon State in the CBI, but it was historic nonetheless.
"If you keep pushing, you can achieve anything," Clark said. "That's one thing I learned."
Clark and the WIU staff pushed hard enough to get him another year of eligibility. The NCAA announced that decision in April, giving Clark all summer to prepare for one final season.
"I looked at a lot things, way I could improve my game and help our team improve," Clark said. "I wanted to make the most of this situation. Don't take anything for granted."
He never has. He never will.
Clark holds aspirations of playing in the NBA --he called it his "ultimate goal and ultimate dream" -- but knows better than to expect it to happen.
He's going to have to make it happen.
"I was never one to give up," Clark said. "I won't give up that dream, either."
There's no reason to, not with knowing how far determination has taken him already.
"I'm really blessed," Clark said. "It hasn't been easy, but I've made it. To see it all pay off is incredible."