Iowa recruit Isaiah Bruce discusses what it was like playing with college football dreams at a small school in Illinois Hawk Central
LENA, Ill. — Just beyond the front entrance of Lena-Winslow High School sits a trophy case. In it, the Panthers’ three football state championship trophies from 2010, 2013 and 2017 stand in front of a panther’s amber eyes painted on the case’s back wall.
It’s easy to tell: This school, which has just 230 students, is proud of its football program.
And it has good reason.
Lena-Winslow has made the playoffs 20 straight seasons in Illinois’ Class 1A football, the state's smallest classification. Until this year, fans in the 3,000-person town of Lena used to set up chairs on the hill surrounding the stadium on Mondays to save seats for games. Now, they’re asked to wait until Thursday evenings.
"Football is such a big deal up here," said Ric Arand, Lena-Winslow's head coach since the mid-1990s.
However, what they have this year is entirely new.
The undefeated Panthers have two Iowa recruits on their roster in senior defensive tackle Isaiah Bruce and junior offensive lineman Gennings Dunker.
Arand said it’s rare for even a Division II coach to come see one of his players. It’s mostly local Division IIIs, NAIAs and community colleges.
And never major Division I programs like Iowa.
Well, until recently.
Before last season, Lena-Winslow has produced two D-I walk-ons, but never had a player receive a D-I football scholarship offer. Illinois’ rural northwest region is an afterthought to Chicagoland and southern Illinois when it comes to recruiting in the state.
When Iowa assistants Seth Wallace and Tim Polasek and head coach Kirk Ferentz came to campus last year, it was the first time a D-I football coach had visited the school. Ever.
"There was a little bit of a buzz going on," Lena-Winslow athletics director Tom Smargiassi remembered with a laugh.
So, how in the world did this happen? How did a school with 230 kids — a school that never had someone get a D-I football offer — suddenly send two guys to Iowa?
Bruce’s brother went to Iowa as a regular student, so Isaiah saw a few Hawkeye games and wanted to play at Kinnick Stadium one day. Nobody from his town had ever come close to something like that, though.
If you’re from Lena and you’re good enough to play college football, you go to D-IIIs like Wisconsin-Whitewater, Wisconsin-Plateville or Dubuque.
Bruce’s previous top choice? Whitewater.
"People from around here rarely go big," Bruce said. "It’s either D-III, or you’re going to go to college just to go to college."
Whitewater was still the goal during his sophomore year in 2017, when Bruce dominated the regular season as a 6-1, 240-pound defensive tackle, fullback and tight end.
Then, things changed after Lena-Winslow’s state title game that year.
"That’s when his name really got thrown all over," Arand said.
On the biggest stage, Bruce battled toe-to-toe with Oklahoma State-bound senior offensive lineman Hunter Woodard, and he added a 72-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass.
One fellow small-school head coach was particularly impressed: Orion’s Chip Filler.
(Yes, the same Orion that produced Iowa freshman defensive end Logan Lee.)
So, two winters ago, when Hawkeye assistant coach Reese Morgan asked Filler about under-the-radar prospects in Illinois, Filler brought up Bruce.
'"You know who you should really look at,'" Filler remembers saying, "'is Isaiah Bruce.'"
That spring, Wallace came to Lena-Winslow to see Bruce. By then, Bruce had wrapped up his basketball season and was starting track, where he throws shot put and discus and runs the 100 and 200 … as defensive tackle-sized kid.
Wallace invited Bruce to camp that June, and Iowa offered on the spot after the camp.
The next day, college coaches from all over started following Bruce on Twitter, he said. Northwestern, Iowa State, Notre Dame, Minnesota and Kentucky got involved, but Bruce committed to the Hawkeyes in November 2018.
He’s still getting used to his D-I dream actually coming true.
"It’s kind of weird how some of my friends look up my name and I’m there," Bruce said with a smile. "It’s just weird. But I’m still the same Isaiah Bruce I was before."
Iowa recruit Gennings Dunker talks about how he wound up a Hawkeye coming out of a small school in Illinois. Hawk Central
Gennings Dunker was doing homework in Lena-Winslow’s cafeteria when he met Kirk Ferentz. It was the day Ferentz and Wallace came by to see Bruce last winter, after he had committed to Iowa.
Arand remembers he was talking with Iowa’s coaches just outside the cafeteria.
"And Gennings came up to ask me a question," Arand said, "and Coach Wallace immediately went up to him and says, 'What size shoe do you wear? What’s your name? How tall are you?'
"They were really interested in him from right there. They just continued looking into him. Coach Wallace came out another time and he made an arrangement for Coach Polasek to come out and see Gennings. And Polasek wanted him right away."
That’s how the Hawkeyes discovered Dunker, Arand said. They obviously did their homework to feel comfortable enough offering him later that summer. But a chance encounter lit the fuse. And if Iowa never found Bruce and never had the opportunity to bump into Dunkers on campus, Arand doesn't think Dunkers would be committed to Iowa — and that he may still be undiscovered.
"I had no idea (Iowa was interested)," said Dunkers, who committed to Iowa as soon as he received his offer in June.
It may be hard to believe a 6-4, 265-pound lineman who also wrestles and runs and throws in track and field would fly under the radar for long. But, in rural northwest Illinois, coaches like Arand are used to guys going unnoticed.
Of 247Sports’ top 20 Illinois prospects from the 2010 to 2020 classes, only three have come from northwest Illinois.
That’s three … out of 220. Two of those players — Bruce and Byron offensive lineman Tyler Elsbury, who comes from the same high school as Iowa great Sean Considine — are 2020 Hawkeye recruits.
In regions like his, Arand said luck is a major factor in recruiting at the higher levels — even for a kid who, on paper, stands out like Dunker.
"There’s a lot of guys out there, and it’s a matter of just being seen," he said. "It’s being at the right place at the right time."
Although he thinks prospects as talented as Bruce and Dunker would have eventually been found, 247Sports Midwest recruiting analyst Allen Trieu agrees. At the very least, Trieu said, luck can speed up the process for kids from less-recruited areas.
"They play some good football (in northwest Illinois), win a lot of games. But they definitely don't pump out the amount of recruits as the rest of the state," Trieu said. "Sometimes, a kid may have a great rep and maybe the right coach isn't watching. Being in the right place and having the right eyes on you (matters). There’s so many kids out there, that it does take some level of luck to be found."
Bruce and Dunker don’t want to be the last Lena-Winslow football players offered a D-I scholarship. Bruce hopes they've helped put Lena-Winslow, and the other area high schools, on the map.
Arand said local Group of Five and FCS programs, such as Northern Illinois and Illinois State, have started coming by since Iowa offered Bruce and Dunkers.
"I feel honored being one of the first people to do something about it," Bruce said. "Hopefully, D-I schools pay attention to what other schools around here are doing, and they give them a chance."
Matthew Bain covers recruiting, Iowa/Iowa State athletics and Drake basketball for the Des Moines Register and USA TODAY Network. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.
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