Port Wing proud: How Megan Gustafson's small-town roots helped put her among the elite

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nestled away in Wisconsin’s northwestern corner, the little lakeside town only emerges on the map after tapping “zoom” a few times. It doesn’t take long to run through the establishments in Port Wing — colorful places like Bear Paw Café and Hob’s South Shore Saloon, Johnson’s Store and Everett’s Fisheries. The population varies, depending on who you ask, but most agree it doesn’t exceed 400.

Megan Gustafson during Iowa Women's Basketball media day at Carver Hawkeye Arena Monday, Oct. 23, 2017.

A mile or so outside the city’s primary area is the Port Wing Boreal Forest, which gives this oasis an evergreen tint with its vast mixture of spruces, pines, birches and maples. Lake Superior serves as the flawless backdrop to this pocket of serenity.

Although reaching shopping malls and Walmarts may require extensive excursions, Megan Gustafson couldn’t imagine being from anywhere else. Trips back now cover about 450 miles, but each visit is a cherished return to the place that helped ignite what’s now become a nationwide ascension.

See, underneath all this intimate Wisconsin scenery is a close-knit community that wholeheartedly supports its basketball — and Gustafson is the current gem. Her genuine demeanor, unwavering work ethic and relentless dominance that Iowa basketball fans have come to know is rooted in Port Wing, where she re-wrote the state record book en route to a bevy of accolades and collegiate attention.

She hasn’t let up since.

Iowa's Megan Gustafson takes a shot during the Hawkeyes' game against Drake at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017.

“The word that always comes to mind with Megan is she’s just so earnest,” veteran Iowa associate head coach Jan Jensen said. “Great values. Everything that she’s about, our program is about. Megan is just so earnest and so selfless.

“You recruit a lot of players who’ve had a lot of accolades early — and Megan was big-time in that part of the state — but it didn’t really matter. She’s always quick to deflect the praise and just has a work ethic and a gratitude about her.”

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While the intricacies of small-town life do provide numerous benefits, there are often obstacles that don’t exist elsewhere. Adjusting on the fly is imperative.

Grocery trips were weekend adventures, entailing hour-long trips just to reach the nearest legit store. And if you forgot something, too bad — there was no turning around. Family dinners weren’t much easier — aside from the handful of small cafes in town, Gustafson estimated it would take 30 minutes or so to reach a bigger restaurant.

Here’s another: Port Wing’s basketball star was also an avid flute player up until 12th grade, and the South Shore High School band always played a specific song at every graduation. But each senior class was so small — Gustafson’s was 11 — that the song would last longer than it took to announce every senior’s name. So the song had to be significantly trimmed and timed out perfectly in order to not drag on. That took extensive practice.

But there’s no better example than Gustafson’s eighth-grade year. Just as she was uncovering her true passion for basketball as a South Shore middle schooler, there was an unexpected snag.

Just four girls tried out. Assembling a full team wasn’t possible.

“That devastated me,” she said.

But South Shore made an exception, and Gustafson was allowed to join the boys’ team in a move that left many teams perplexed on game night. In pregame warmups, Gustafson said she’d get odd looks from the opposing team's players, coaches and fans, all wondering who this female was they were set to face.

They found out soon enough.

“I think it was against Bayfield — they were known as a rough team in general — and I just really wanted to take it at them,” recalled Gustafson, who estimated she was already pushing six feet as an eighth-grader. “And there was a timeout called, and their coach came over to my coach and said I was being too rough on them and that I needed to calm down.

“And my coach turned around and told me, ‘Just keep taking it at 'em.’ I think, at that point, I knew I could be good.”

Gustafson seamlessly transitioned into high school and morphed into one of Wisconsin’s most decorated ballers ever. Some doubted her early, coming from the state’s smallest classification (Division 5), but the stats — and the tape — didn’t lie.

The Port Wing community knew what it was witnessing. Every home game was packed to the brim as Gustafson guided the Cardinals to the state tournament her sophomore and senior years. She snapped countless records along the way and currently holds the state’s single-game (64), single-season (1,127) and career (3,229) scoring marks.

Heightened exposure on the AAU circuit had worked for Gustafson’s older sister, Emily — who had received a scholarship from Upper Iowa — so Megan followed suit.

“There is obviously no AAU basketball team in Port Wing, nothing like that,” said Clendon Gustafson, Megan’s father. “In fact, even in a 45-mile radius, we didn’t really have any girls’ AAU teams, so we signed on with Team Wisconsin, based out of Menomonie, Wisconsin, which is almost a three-hour drive from us — one way.

“Luckily enough for us, they didn’t have a lot of practices. They had maybe three or four in the very beginning of the AAU season, and the rest of it was just meet for games and play.”

Jensen and the Hawkeyes had noticed the high school dominance early, and Gustafson’s Team Wisconsin performances against high-end competition further validated Iowa’s initial evaluations.

She was no longer a hidden commodity after thriving on the AAU scene, and offers poured in from all across the Midwest and Big Ten. But the Hawkeyes were one of the first in the door — having pulled the trigger at the start of Gustafson’s junior year — and that initial interest resonated deeply as the 6-foot-3 forward weighed her laundry list of options.

Somewhat treacherous recruiting trips ensued as Jensen navigated the Wisconsin wilderness multiple times to visit Port Wing, but the efforts paid off: Iowa locked up Gustafson before her final prep season had even begun, landing the commitment at the tail end of her junior year in May 2014.

“We were ecstatic,” Jensen said, “because we felt she could be really, really great.”

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With her basketball decision cemented, a different challenge awaited. Venturing off to college requires a learning curve for most, especially if the university isn’t close to home and high school companions aren’t tagging along as well.

But that aspect of the usual high school-to-college transition was on a different level for Gustafson, who was jumping from a 300-person community to a college town of 70,000 more than seven hours away. Her sister was nearby — and her teammates created an instant friend circle — but there was still a bit of an adjustment period.

Jensen recalled one get-together during the 2015 summer, heading into Gustafson’s first season. The Iowa assistant held a team gathering at her house to watch Bluder coach in the Pan American games, and she noticed her freshman seemed rather quiet.

“I think (Iowa associated head coach Jenni Fitzgerald) talked with her,” Jensen said, "and Megan was just, like, ‘This is just more people than I’ve ever had in my class. I’m good.’

“And so at that point, we started to think, ‘Well, yeah — it’s going to be (an adjustment).”

Gradually, though, Gustafson fell in love with her new “big city” and learned to manage her newfound responsibilities. Very few issues arose. Academics never suffered. Any overwhelming feelings ultimately vanished. Jensen thought back to another prominent moment about a month into Gustafson’s Hawkeye tenure, when over coffee, she proudly said that college was “everything I dreamed it would be.”

Iowa's Megan Gustafson fights off Quinnipiac defenders during their game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Friday, Nov. 10, 2017.

“She loves our community, and she loves Iowa City,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “Megan couldn’t believe all the places we had to eat — just little things that are so fun when you come from a small community and don’t have a lot of opportunities. You come here, and you don’t have to drive 45 minutes to go to Walmart — it’s a great deal.

“So she really embraced all of that, even though it was very different from her (hometown).”

Now in her third season, Gustafson has shaken her Iowa City awe and fits right in with her peers. Even if her teammates still dish out the small-town jabs

“(Fellow forward) Chase (Coley) makes fun of her all the time,” redshirt freshman Alexis Sevillian said with a laugh. “When we talk to recruits and stuff, they always ask, ‘What school did you go, to or how many people are in your town?’ And Chase will be, like, ‘Oh, Megan’s graduating class was, like, 11.’

“We make jokes about that all the time.”

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There’s no joking about Gustafson’s play.

After being named to the conference’s all-freshman team in year one and earning first-team all-Big Ten honors last season, Iowa’s frontcourt anchor is currently tied for the nation’s lead in double-doubles with 12 ... after just 13 games. Her 69.8 field-goal percentage is second in the country.

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder congratulates Megan Gustafson for her 1,000 career points before the Hawkeyes' game against Northern Illinois at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017.

“When I’m down low,” Gustafson said, “I don’t want anyone to win a battle against me. I’m going to be the one working harder than them.”

Opponents have doubled-teamed — even triple-teamed — the junior forward, but to no avail. Her consistency and efficiency in the nonconference earned an ESPN mention and some sort of Big Ten recognition in each of the season’s first six weeks, as the No. 23 Hawkeyes have surged to 12-1 heading into conference play.

Simply put, Gustafson is trending toward all-American status.

"She is an all-American in my book," Northern Iowa coach Tanya Warren said after the Hawkeyes and Gustafson smoked UNI, 71-47, earlier this month. “She’s extremely efficient and can score in a variety of ways, and she goes after the offensive rebound better than any kid I’ve seen in my career as a coach — and this is my 23rd year. That young lady is an all-American.”         

The Port Wing folk still follow their native daughter. Clendon said people regularly come up to him gushing about his Megan’s latest dominant performance, having either watched the game on TV or read a story about it online.

Plastered on the town’s official website is a link to her latest Big Ten award, the headline above reading, “Megan Gustafson: Making her hometown proud!”

She certainly has.

Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.