Basketball legend Michael Jordan once said that talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.
Alex Kirk led Clark’s men’s basketball team to an NWAC championship last year. With four returning players, Kirk realizes talent alone will not withstand the depth of their new region in the NWAC South.
The Penguins have been on a seven-game winning streak after league play began on Jan. 2. An unbeaten league record of 7-0 and an overall record of 16-3 places them first in the south region.
A lingering confidence floats in the locker room and the taste of winning has intoxicated returning guard captains Glenn Baral, Darrius Mathis and Bryan Berg.
“That’s why I came back,” Baral said. “Winning is the only thing I can think about.”
This confidence is not unwarranted. Leading into this season, the Penguins have lost just eight games out of their last 60, establishing themselves as a threat to any team in the NWAC.
After the NWAC placed Clark in the south region for Spring 2015, the Penguins will be playing in a region that Kirk said is “the most difficult conference, top to bottom.”
Undeterred, Clark opened their season on Dec. 20 with a five-game winning streak, winning each game by an average of 32.4 points. After a 57-point victory against Concordia College’s junior varsity team, Clark’s streak ended with a three point loss to Peninsula College.
Kirk acknowledged his team’s potential, saying “we are a lot faster” and “more athletic accross the board” compared to last year’s team. However, he said their ability to “cruise through the few games of the season” might have given the Penguins an “over inflated” idea of this season’s outcome.
“I think any team in the south is capable of beating anyone else,” Kirk said, “This region forces us to be on 16 nights during our season, and we have to show up to play unless we want to be on the outside, looking in.”
The Penguins’ first meeting with a south region team resulted in an exhibition loss (104-91) against Lane Community College. And after a win against the alumni, the Penguins met another humbling defeat (79-78) against Lower Columbia College, bringing their preseason record to 9-3.
Kirk said the south region’s team records are “sneaky good.”
Currently No. 4, Chemeketa Community College has a 13-7 season record but began their season playing nationally-ranked community colleges. No. 9 ranked Portland Community College currently sits last in the south region, averaging three less points than Clark who is averaging 92.6 points per game. Lane is ranked No. 5 and has a higher overall win record at 17-3 than Clark’s 16-3, yet the Penguin’s undefeated conference record still puts them on top.
Mathis, second-year guard, saw losing three non-conference games as a benefit.
“We needed those. Especially losing at home so close. It got our minds right,” Mathis said, tapping his temple with his index finger.
“We played this team last year,” Mathis said after a narrow win (75-62) against PCC on Jan. 13. “And this year there was much more pressure to win being in the south.”
Last year, three of the five teams that defeated Clark were from the south region and Kirk said they have only gotten stronger. He has insured his team is well equipped to take on this daunting region with help from Clark’s second-year scoring leader and captain, Bryan Berg.
Berg is averaging 16.8 points on the season and is the first-ranked free throw shooter and 20th-ranked three-point shooter in the NWAC. With co-captains Baral and Mathis, the trio is scoring a combined average of 39.6 points per game.
Berg’s leadership and championship game experience has inspired players like sophomore guard Wilson Alerte.
“We are all here to win,” Alerte said after practice. “Bryan is a great leader and friend. And since he has won a championship already, we all listen to him.”
Multiple teammates agreed that the amount of talent this team harbors together with returning athletes, the team has the mindset for another championship.
Kirk said that at the start of the season, his team entered with the same mentality and expectations as last year. During recruitment, Kirk said he sought out players that were willing to assume positions to lead and follow interchangeably.
Clark rallied behind returning 6-foot-11-inch center, Miles Martin, who pulled a double-double scoring 15 points and 11 rebounds, during a victory (101-51) over Centralia College.
Berg, Martin and Mathis agree that any player on the team has the ability to have a night like Martin’s against Centralia.
“This year we have so many weapons on offense, scoring should not be a problem for us,” Martin said.
Kirk is looking at each game cautiously and hopes his team will expect a different challenge for every team.
“I wouldn’t be a coach if I didn’t think we could win,” Kirk said. “The threat of losing is what keeps it interesting.”