Iowa's latest small town finds
Tucked away in the northwest corner of Illinois is the town of Lena.
It’s your typical small town in the Midwest that was made complete in recent years with addition of a Casey’s General Store to go along with a Subway sandwich shop that was already in the community.
What’s not so typical about Lena is their high school, Lena-Winslow, which had just 226 students last year. As of Sunday evening, of those 226 students, two have verbally committed to play football at the University of Iowa.
“The whole D1 part of this is kind of new to us,” said longtime head football coach Ric Arand. He has taught at the high school for 28 years and led the football program to great success for 23 of those years.
Of course, it’s very typical for the Iowa football program to pluck little known prospects out of small towns going back to the days when Hayden Fry led the Hawkeye program.
Kirk Ferentz and his staff have made it an art form over the years, finding players from small farming communities in Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota. The most successful of those small schools was Aplington-Parkersburg High School and their football program led by the legendary Ed Thomas. During a ten year stretch the northeast Iowa school produced four NFL players, including three who played at the University of Iowa.
Now it’s Lena’s turn as the latest small town with big time success in producing Iowa football players.
It all started last June when Isaiah Bruce decided to travel to Iowa City for the Hawkeyes annual football camp. After leading his high school team to a state title as a sophomore, Bruce wasn’t generating much recruiting interest.
The nearly 6-foot-2 defensive end from the 2020 class went to the camp simply hoping to get better. Bruce ended up with much more.
“Isaiah went there a year ago just looking to compete and trying to learn from the coaches. He had no idea if he could play at that level,” Arand said. “Then about a day later, they called an offered him a scholarship.”
Bruce then waited a few months before verbally committing to the Hawkeyes in early November.
It was the commitment of Bruce that opened the door for the Hawkeyes to discover their latest small town gem. Iowa assistant defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Seth Wallace recruits the area and was up for a visit to Lena to check in on Bruce. While he was talking with Arand, he noticed another prospect walking the halls of the school, Gennings Dunker.
“Coach Wallace was up to see me one day to see how Isaiah was doing and Gennings happened to be coming out of the cafeteria,” Arand said. “The first thing Coach Wallace said to him was what size shoes are you wearing? They were 17’s and he always has trouble finding shoes. Coach Wallace said, ok, we will be in touch.”
From there, Kirk Ferentz, who was there to check on Bruce, had a chance to visit with Dunker. From there, the next coach who needed to see the 6-foot-5 and 260 pound offensive line prospect was position coach Tim Polasek, who observed Dunker working out this spring.
The final box was checked this past Sunday when Dunker, along with Bruce and another high school teammate, traveled to Iowa City for the Hawkeyes first camp in the month of June. Aranda also made the trip as well to observe the camp. After the camp ended, Dunker sat down with Kirk Ferentz, who offered the 2021 offensive lineman a scholarship and with his family in the room, he accepted on the spot, becoming Iowa’s first verbal commitment of the class.
“You kind of had a feeling that this was coming based on the way things were heading with him and Iowa,” Arand said. “He went out there on Sunday and I thought he did really well and obviously the Iowa coaches felt the same way.”
The lesson here appears to be that no matter how small your high school is, there are major college programs that will take a long look at you and even offer a scholarship, if you simply come to camp and compete.
“If you make the time and take the time, you can find the small school kids out there,” Arand said. “There are probably a lot of kids like Gennings, Isaiah, Tyler (Elsbury), and Logan (Lee) that get overlooked just because they are in small towns. The bottom line is all those kids went to camp at Iowa and put themselves out there to be seen and evaluated and you see the result.”
The reaction around the town of Lena with the news that another one of their own would be joining the Iowa football program has been very positive. This week was the start of summer workouts for the Lena-Winslow football team and their teammates were thrilled with having another player earning a Big Ten scholarship.
“We had our first summer workouts this week and the kids were pretty excited, especially Isaiah, who was the most excited. He was all over social media on Sunday night sharing the news.”
Arand is very excited about the future for Bruce and Dunker with the Hawkeyes. They have had different developmental paths during high school, but they also share the same trait of working hard on and off the field.
“With Isaiah, he’s always been the top athlete in his grade. He’s pretty much looked the same since about 6th or 7th grade, including maybe having his beard,” Arand said with a laugh. “As he got older, you saw his speed and strength really develop. He’s about 265 and one of the fastest kids in the area and probably one of the strongest too. You could almost always see this coming with him.”
The developmental path for Dunker is slightly different. While Bruce was always physically imposing, Dunker was more like a young deer growing into his frame when he entered high school.
“He’s was probably about 6-2 and 210 pounds when he got here as a freshman. Now you can see him growing into his body. He wrestled this year at 220 pounds because we had a very good heavyweight and now he’s back up to 260 and he’s still very lean because he does it the right way,” Arand said.
Dunker also has a special work ethic that stands out to his head coach.
“He’s a workaholic in the weight room and in the classroom. He’s in there every single day trying to get bigger and stronger and he has a 4.2 GPA. This past year he really came on the second half of the year and by the end of the season he was one of the best linemen in the area.”
Over the years, Kirk Ferentz has made a point of highlighting the small town success stories in his program. From Dallas Clark to Robert Gallery to Chad Greenway, Iowa fans have seen many of them during his tenure. The latest small town Iowa football success story is just getting started in Lena, Illinois and it’s going to be exciting to see them follow in their footsteps and chase their dreams.