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April 14, 2021

Clink has come full circle at Chico State

Once in a while, Greg Clink will open a drawer at his home in Chico and smile at the faded white T-shirt commemorating the 1994 Northern California Athletic Conference title he won as a senior with the Chico State men’s basketball team.

“That’s something that’s special to me,” the Morgan Hill native and 1989 graduate of Live Oak High says. “It’s a memory to last a lifetime.”

When he was hired as Wildcats coach four years ago, Clink couldn’t think of anything better to bring to his introductory news conference. As he spoke, the shirt laid across a desk in front of him, emphasizing the kind of memories he hoped to share with his players.

Clink, 41, will always cherish it, but he might need a bigger dresser. At least one new order of shirts is on the way for this year’s Wildcats, who have captured the program’s first conference championship since Clink’s senior year and are heading to the NCAA Division II Tournament.

Chico State (24-7) earned the No. 5 seed in the West Region and will face No. 4 Humboldt State (22-7), who beat CSUC 89-76 in the California Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament final on March 3, in the first round at 5:30 p.m. Friday in Bellingham, Wash.

Needless to say, the Wildcats haven’t had an exorbitant amount of success since Clink graduated. They last appeared in the Big Dance in 2005 and have not won an NCAA Tournament game since … ever. But the program has made tremendous strides in four years under Clink, who has found the right mix of players for his intense style of defense.

The Wildcats won eight games in Clink’s first season, their most in three years, and have not had a losing season since. Their overall grade point average, meanwhile, has risen from a 2.1, worst among CSUC men’s teams, to a 3.5, best in the school.

“The first thing was attacking recruiting, trying to identify good players that care about getting their degrees, care about working and developing and that want to be a part of something special,” said the 2012 CCAA Coach of the Year, whose team is ranked sixth in the nation in points allowed with their lowest clip (59.3) since the 1950-51 season. “We instilled discipline in the program. We are going to work hard, extremely hard. And, in order to do that, it’s about finding the right group of guys.”

No Wildcat fits the bill better that Jay Flores. The senior point guard from Sacramento was named MVP of the CCAA after averaging 11 points and 4.1 assists in conference play.

“He’s been as instrumental as anyone,” Clink said. “Other than being a great player, he’s a great student; he’s one of many on this team. I’ve been coaching 18 years, as this is the best group of people I’ve been involved with.”

Flores is the program’s second player to make first-team All-West Region, but he is more proud of his district all-academic first-team honor.

“Coach Clink was the only one who believed I could do this at this level. I owe him a lot,” Flores said. “When he’s recruiting you, he doesn’t promise you anything about playing time or wins, if you’re going to start. But you are going to graduate. He’s so dedicated to it. As far as basketball, every little thing we do in practice and games feels like it has a purpose, even if it doesn’t in the grand scheme. He’s changed the culture so much.”

Flores occasionally stops by teammates’ classes to make sure they’re in attendance, a strategy he learned from Clink.

“I’ve always wanted to coach,” Flores said. “After playing for him, I want to even more.”

Watching his Wildcats win their last two regular-season games to clinch the CCAA title outright and cut down the net at Chico State’s old Acker Gym was a “surreal” moment for Clink, every bit as special as winning three conference championships as a CSUC player and one with the Live Oak boys basketball team in 1988 under Jim Green, the Acorns’ last league title.

“That had been our goal since our first league game against San Francisco State,” Clink said. “It was a great achievement for us. It’s been gratifying for me to be able to do it as early in my coaching career. I didn’t know we’d be as successful as we’ve been by Year 4. It’s a tribute to the players and the guys we have on staff.”

On campus, Clink has noticed a buzz from the Wildcats’ title run (“It’s always a fun time in Chico, especially during playoffs,” Flores said). Every so often, the coach will see a student wearing Live Oak apparel and promptly introduce himself.

In time, a few Chico State championship shirts might be seen around Morgan Hill.

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