A day in Port Wing with Megan Gustafson

Tiny village in northern Wisconsin is home to Iowa All-American

 

PORT WING, Wis. — You’ve turned left onto State Highway 13.

Duluth, Minn. — and its smaller sibling, Superior, Wis. — are miles behind. Some might argue, so is civilization. The forest has become thicker, full of tall, thin white birch trees, like matchsticks.

The indicator on your cellphone fluctuates from “Extended” or “Limited” to simply “No Service.”

You’re getting closer.

About 5 miles away from your destination, a wayside appears on the north side of the desolate, but well-kept, highway that is traversed by nearly as many logging trucks as automobiles. And there it is, Lake Superior, the largest of the five Great Lakes.

Stop for a moment. Take in the vastness of the lake. It’s silent, except for the rhythmic slapping of the waves upon the shore.

The south shore.

In the distance, a bald eagle descends from the horizon to the water, snatches away a whitefish — or maybe it’s a trout or a walleye — then returns to the sky.

From the shore, you steal away three small, smooth rocks. A keepsake for this day, because it’s unlikely you’ll ever return.

Back in the car, around a couple curves, over a couple hills, and there it is. An unincorporated village of 160 folks.

It’s the home of the Bear Paw Cafe, the Labor Day Fish Boil, the Testicle Festival. It’s the home of the smallest public school in the state, South Shore High School, which will educate 55 students in grades 9-12 this year.

And it’s the unlikely hometown to one of the best women’s basketball players in the country.

Welcome to Port Wing, home of Megan Gustafson.

 

University of Iowa associate head coach Jan Jensen made several voyages to see Gustafson compete for the South Shore Cardinals. Instead of the eight-hour drive, she opted for air travel.

Once, she flew into Duluth-Superior for a basketball game.

“The (weather) radar said it was snowing up there, so I checked to see if they were still playing. ‘We’re good. It’s just a few flurries,’ they told me,” Jensen said.

“Well, I got there, and to me, it was more than just flurries. Of course, I lose phone service in the woods, and the roads are kind of hilly and curvy. It was white knuckles all the way.

“Then I got there, and of course, Megan did 80 percent of the scoring.”

Another time, Jensen flew into a small airport in nearby Ashland for a South Shore volleyball match.

“I never watched Northern Exposure, but I imagine it was kind of like this,” Jensen said. “The sun was setting and it was beautiful. But I got to the airport at 5:30 or 6 at night, and nobody was there.

“There was an instruction on the door to get the key to my rental car. The key was in a cupboard, hanging on the tin can on a wall. That car was probably 15 years old and basic in every regard. I don’t think the lights worked right. But it got me where I needed to go.”

Once, the entire Iowa State staff was going to fly to Duluth for a game, but was rerouted to a nearby town due to a storm. There wasn’t a car available, so a local let Bill Fennelly and staff borrow his vehicle for the night.

“That’s just how people are here,” said Eva Gustafson, Megan’s mother.

 

Gustafsons have been around these parts for generations. There’s a Gustafson Road west of Port Wing, and that’s where Clendon Gustafson was born, a few miles from his family’s present home.

Clendon, 55, is the superintendent and principal at South Shore. In his spare time, he is an Christian fiction author, with the fourth book of his “Young Boy Lost” series nearly complete.

Eva (Polkoski) Gustafson is 54 and a therapist at the school, plus a couple neighboring schools. Of course, “neighboring” is a relative term; schools in this remote region are sometimes more than 30 miles apart.

As a first-grader, Eva was one of the fastest kids in the grade, male or female, and was chasing somebody at school when she collided with unsuspecting classmate Clendon, driving him into a flagpole. Crying, Clendon went inside and told the teacher.

All was eventually forgiven. They married on Aug. 15, 1992, at the Port Wing town square. Their first daughter, Emily Marie, was born in 1994.

Megan Elizabeth joined them on Dec. 13, 1996. In hindsight, it’s a shocker she was only 19 inches long. Her grandmother called her Bunny Girl, because she “always used to hop around,” Eva said.

 

The Gustafson home, 7830 State Highway 13, is about a mile west of Port Wing. It’s a no-frills, three-bedroom house built on a 100-acre tract of land — mostly forest — on the north side of the highway.

“We’re not fancy people,” Eva said in her thick northern accent. “Come in, please. And feel free to leave your shoes on.”

In the living room are two leather couches and a chair, with a TV on a cabinet. An old piano stands as a holding ground for high school graduation picture collages of both Emily (South Shore Class of 2013, and now a graduate student at UW-River Falls, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in school psychology) and Megan (Class of 2015). The white keys contain stickers with letters of the notes. One of the black keys is missing.

Another cabinet is the future home to two of Megan’s latest awards, still in plastic wrap. Both are from the NCAA — one for leading the nation in scoring (25.7 points per game), the other for field-goal accuracy (67.1 percent).

The bedrooms are past the dining room and kitchen, down a hallway. Megan’s small room consists of a dresser and a bed, covered with a black and gold Iowa Hawkeyes blanket and none too long for her 6-foot-3 frame.

“This is where I learned the art of sleeping diagonally,” she said.

Megan got Iowa’s attention when she was a sophomore, after Jenni Fitzgerald — the Hawkeyes’ other associate head coach — saw her play in the 2013 Wisconsin state tournament.

“We were watching another player from another team (in 2013), but we had heard about Megan because she shot a good field-goal percentage and scored a lot of points,” Jensen said. “After she saw Megan play, Jenni called right away and said, ‘She’s pretty darn good.’”

 

South Shore was the first consolidated school in Wisconsin, and is the very smallest. There are about 160 kids in the building, and that’s Pre-K through 12.

“We were Division 4 when I was in school. If there were 10 divisions, we’d be Division 10,” Megan said.

The new school year starts Sept. 4. This year’s senior class consists of 18 students, and is one of the largest grades. Megan’s graduating class had 11.

“We’ve heard way back since I was in middle school that we were going to merge,” said Clendon, South Shore Class of 1981. “When I was in seventh grade, the community voted for a new facility, and we’ve been hanging on ever since.”

At South Shore, all students receive their own laptop, and they take it with them when they graduate. And all students — rich, poor, whatever — eat breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack for free.

Just inside the school’s entrance are two white basketball jerseys. No. 41 belonged to Jolene Anderson. No. 10 was worn by Megan. Both are retired.

Clendon called Megan’s success “a dream, really.”

“I had visions, yes. I knew she was going to be tall. I thought maybe if she worked hard, she might be able to play somewhere small, like Eva and I did.”

Clendon played basketball at Wisconsin-Superior; Eva, who once scored 43 points in a high school game, was a volleyball/basketball player at St. Scholastica in Duluth. Emily was a basketball player at Upper Iowa University in Fayette.

Megan, meanwhile, continued to progress and the letters started coming from upper-level Division I programs. The first, from a Big Ten school, came from Iowa.

“I was standing in the front doorway when I opened it,” Megan said. “I couldn’t stop smiling.”

Eventually, she chose the Hawkeyes over Wisconsin, Iowa State, Indiana and Northwestern. Upon learning of Gustafson’s decision, a Gazette reporter tried — to no avail — to reach her. It was a bad day for cell service in Port Wing.

She called back the next day.

 

Megan has wandered into the high school gymnasium, which contains a set of red and white bleachers, 10 rows high, on one side of the gym. They’re pushed against the wall now.

Two girls, eighth-grader Livia Murray and her fifth-grade sister Vienna, are doing basketball drills. Both are wearing Iowa No. 10 jerseys, miniature Megan jerseys. They are Megan’s cousins, and they take note of every instruction she gives, every post move she shares.

“Keep an eye on them,” Megan said, nodding. “They’re going to be really good.”

Clendon coached the Cardinals for one season — 2012-13, when Megan and Emily were on the team. They got to the state semifinals, then South Shore returned when Megan was a senior in 2015, with Ryan Tiberg as the head coach.

“I’ll probably coach 30 years and never coach a player of that caliber again,” Tiberg said. “It was a very special experience. You could count on 40 points, 20 rebounds and seven or eight assists a night from her.

“But the level she’s at now, it’s insane. I knew she would do well, but I didn’t have any idea she would elevate to this level.”

Volleyball coach Jodi Trushon said, “There’s that line between potential and reality. We thought she was an amazing athlete, but we’re just little South Shore.

 

Video: The story of Megan Gustafson's first basket

“She’s exceeded everything we thought she would do.”

At South Shore, Megan compiled 3,229 points, 1,728 rebounds and 628 blocks, many against Indianhead Conference rivals like Bayfield, Butternut and Solon Springs. The highlight was a 64-point night against archrival Mercer in her senior year.

Her eyes sparkled at the recollection.

“Nobody from here liked Mercer,” Megan said. “They were dirty.”

Megan is the all-time leading scorer in Wisconsin. She surpassed the record of Anderson, a 2004 graduate of South Shore.

What is the probability of the state’s top two scorers coming from this tiny school?

That would be a good project for Jack Nelson, who graduated from South Shore in 1996, went to college, then returned as a math teacher. Last year, his class recorded Megan’s points every game. They developed slope/intercept plots, tracking her pursuit of Ally Disterhoft’s scoring record at Iowa.

Disterhoft accumulated 2,102 points in her career (2013-17). Gustafson is No. 6 all-time at Iowa with 1,803 points, and closing fast. At last season’s rate, she should get there around the start of the Big Ten season.

“It’s just like high school for her,” Nelson said. “The other teams double-team her. There’s kids all around her and she still scores.

“It doesn’t make sense.”

 

Port Wing and Iowa City are two different worlds, in size and culture.

“I was really homesick that first summer,” Megan said. “I was pretty quiet. It was a culture shock. Chase (Coley) would pull me out of my comfort zone, and I’m very thankful for that.”

At Iowa, the women’s basketball players are paired with other athletes from different sports. Rural, white Megan was paired with Adorabol Huckelby, an African-American tennis player from Detroit.

They clicked immediately.

“She’s my best friend,” Megan said. “We’re so similar, so goofy.”

They began their fourth year as roommates when school started last week.

Megan came home for a few days in May, then served as an intern at Midwest One Bank in Iowa City in the commercial banking department, working on credit analysis and loan reviews.

“The banking industry is really interesting and fast-paced,” said Megan, a business major and psychology minor.

She and Iowa teammate Hannah Stewart played for an Athletes In Action squad that represented Team USA in an international tournament in Brazil (they won gold), then Megan was back home Aug. 10-18, her last trip to Port Wing until Christmas.

“I love this town, I really do,” she said. “But when I leave and come back, I feel like I’m not from here any more.”

There’s no industry in Port Wing, which, Clendon said, once had a population of around 1,000 before its sandstone quarry closed down. The latest population number, according to the U.S. Census, is 164.

When you come into town, the Bear Paw Cafe is on the south side of State Highway 13 — “The Big Ten Network loves to talk about it when they cover our games,” Megan said — then a campground and Johnson Store, which has a supply of fresh smoked fish hauled in daily from local commercial fishermen.

The town park and town hall are across the street, next to a new fire department (the fire engines are not red, but rather neon yellowish-green).

“I love the baskets at the city park,” Megan said, tossing in one hook shot after another, both left- and right-handed. “They have chain nets, and I love the sound the ball makes when it goes through.”

At the town hall is the annual Fish Boil, the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, that attracts about 2,000 people.

“They put fresh lake trout, whole onions and potatoes and spices in a big pot,” Clendon said. “Nothing tastes better.”

There’s another tradition in Port Wing. It’s called the Testicle Festival, a June dinner and cancer fundraiser.

“(Organizers) bring in Rocky Mountain oysters from all different sorts of animals, and they fry them up,” Clendon said. “It’s a big bash.”

In conjunction with the Testicle Festival is a 5K race, the Sack Slapper.

Megan shook her head. “I do basketball,” she said. “I don’t do the Sack Slapper.”

 

She doesn’t do horses, either. She tried.

A vacant oval paddock stands between the Gustafson house and a machine shed. That’s where Megan and Emily worked their quarter horses — Megan’s was named Rose — and their ponies, Snickers and Stardust, in preparation for the Bayfield County Fair as part of the Whispering Pines 4-H Club.

Clendon has many stories about his daughters and their equine partners. Most of them end the same way, with Megan on the ground.

“She got bucked off a lot,” he said.

“I tried to like them,” Megan said. The proof is in the photo album, a picture with Megan and Snickers. Megan is probably in middle school, with glasses and a smile that looks a bit forced.

When Megan left for Iowa City, the smile went with her. She is beloved by her coaches and her teammates, and not just because of her productivity.

“She’s the most selfless star I’ve ever been around,” Jensen said. “She’s humble, and she means it. The other kids don’t get tired of the attention she receives. They know they are witnesses to greatness.”

After her 25.7-point, 12.2-rebound-per-game brilliance of 2017-18, Megan was a consensus All-American, and it chafed most fans more than it did her that she was a second-teamer more often than not.

“I’d say it motivates me more than it bothers me,” she said. “I have one more year for growth.”

 

Video: Megan Gustafson's scrapbook

She talks about extending her range and improving her 15- to 17-foot jumper. She wants to enhance her ball-handling and her defensive footwork.

She wants to dunk, if the opportunity presents itself.

“I can grab the rim easy,” she said. “I’m working on building up my quads for it.”

At The Port, a restaurant owned by another relative, Tabby Gustafson, Megan orders a chicken bacon wrap with ranch dressing: “my third favorite food,” she said.

“I love spaghetti too. But if I had to have a last meal, it would be buttermilk pancakes.”

Megan also sports a fondness for the color pink, corgis, the Royal family and the Bachelor/Bachelorette TV series.

Take Washington Street north of State Highway 13, and you reach the downtown district, if you want to call it that.

On the west side, there’s the now-vacant Lundgren Block, which “used to be a hopping place,” according to Eva. It will be torn down eventually. There’s also the Security State Bank and Trout Run Art, an ice cream shop that “is open about three times a year,” Megan said.

On the east side, there’s the post office. Yes, even though Port Wing is unincorporated, there’s a post office.

During pregame introductions at Carver-Hawkeye Arena next season, Megan will be referred to by the public-address announcer as “a 6-3 senior from Port Wing, Wisconsin.”

She’ll smile, slap hands with her tunnel teammates, hurl a T-shirt into the crowd. And she’ll reflect.

“When I hear that, it’s pretty cool,” she said. “Others have their big cities, and I have Port Wing. It makes me proud of where I come from.

“Like my coaches say, it’s a hidden gem.”

 

Lake Superior is shared by Ontario, Canada, to the north, Minnesota to the west, and Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the south.

The winters are harsh here, but not as brutal as you might think. The average high for December, January and February is about 20 degrees, the average low, about 5.

“We get quite a bit of snow, but not as much as they get east of us,” Clendon said.

Tucked away, just north of Port Wing and on the shore of the lake, is Boreal Forest, which the Gustafsons call Quarry Beach.

Megan also calls it “the best place on Earth. I spent every day of my summers here when I was younger. I loved the big-wave days.”

The Gustafsons — Megan, Eva, Clendon — have been warm and gracious hosts for the past 6 1/2 hours, touring a photographer and a writer around town. Now, Megan is in her happy place.

Livia and Vienna have changed out of their Iowa jerseys and into swimsuits and two other, younger cousins have joined them. Megan embraces the other four into a bear hug, then takes off her size-12 1/2 shoes and wades into the chilly water, alone.

She climbs to a bluff on the shore, 10 feet above the water. It’s a sunny afternoon, about 3:30 and 75 degrees. A perfect day.

In two hours, she will drive back to the gym and work out with next year’s South Shore Cardinals. In three days, she’ll depart for Iowa City, where another school year, her final season with the Hawkeyes, awaits.

There’s the likelihood of more school records. The hope — a legitimate hope — of a Big Ten championship. Maybe a deep run in the NCAA tournament. The WNBA Draft. A diploma.

But for a few precious moments, it’s just Megan Gustafson, her thoughts and her lake.

 

 

l Comments: (319) 368-8857; jeff.linder@thegazette.com

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