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Utahns find grid heaven in Iowa

John Kinsella: Is this heaven?

Ray Kinsella: It's ... it's Iowa.

John Kinsella: I could have sworn it was heaven. — From "Field of Dreams"

When it comes to Utah-raised football players, some coaches can't get enough of them.

They like their style. They like their substance. They like their attitude.

"They're knowledgeable of the game. They're tough. They work extremely hard and they're dedicated to both academics and athletics. Those are the kinds of kids we want in this program," said the coach.

Which coach?

Bronco Mendenhall? Brent Guy? Kyle Whittingham? Ron McBride? How about Titan Trimble at Snow College, Greg Croshaw at Dixie State or Wes Meier at SUU?

None of the above.

It's Todd Hafner, head football coach at William Penn University, founded by Quaker pioneers in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Which makes it all quite symmetrical. He's coaching players from an area settled by a different group of religious pioneers.

"The players and students that we get from Utah have done very well," added Hafner.

How well? Sandy's James Fonutaine (Hillcrest) was a second-team NAIA all-American last year, after setting school records for receptions and receiving yardage. Also on last year's team was tight end Andy Stokes, from St. George, who became only the third William Penn player to be drafted by the NFL.

Stokes even received a modicum of notoriety by being selected 255th overall — the last player in the 2005 draft, thus earning the title "Mr. Irrelevant."

He might be irrelevant in the NFL, but not so in Oskaloosa.

There he's a celebrity.

The list of Utahns playing for WPU is substantial, if not downright surprising. This year's Statesmen roster has eight, including quarterbacks Brett Hiatt (Payson) and Daniel Beck (Copper Hills), defensive back Beau Byington (Northridge), linebackers Blandon Prowse (Copper Hills/Snow College) and Clint Peery (Payson/ Snow College), offensive linemen Volmar

Jacome (Hillcrest) and Troy Braithwaite (Timpanogos/ Dixie State) and defensive lineman Chet Sampson (Logan).

Last year there were more than a dozen Utahns on the roster.

Utah has delivered some 30 players for the William Penn program in the last few years.

How did this happen?

How did so many Utahns come to consider Iowa, well, heaven?

According to Hafner, the Utah connection developed largely through the efforts of former assistant coach Tom Fell, who had attended Snow College and whose wife is from Utah. Fell believed there was enough talent in the Beehive State to make it worth checking out. So they did.

First there were a few, then a handful, then a bunch of players that traveled to Iowa to play. Now Hafner takes an annual recruiting trip to Utah in December, where he visits the small colleges and numerous high schools.

"We send questionnaires to almost every high school in Utah," said Hafner. "We will continue to recruit the area very hard, because we know we can get good players out of there."

Hiatt, a quarterback, is injured but on the roster. Beck, a third-string quarterback, also holds for field goals and extra points.

Prowse is the Statesmen's starting defensive end. Peery starts at middle linebacker and is among the conference leaders in tackles per game.

Jacome is the JV center. Braithwaite was a starting offensive lineman but is out for the year after sustaining a herniated disc. Sampson is a special teams player and backup tight end. Byington is a backup defensive back and plays on all special teams.

Their assignment isn't easy; WPU hasn't won a conference title since 1976.

If WPU is going to win a championship in the near future, it will do so with a load of Utahns on the roster.

Which raises the question: How did they get away from Utah's colleges?

"It doesn't matter who you are, you're going to miss someone," said Hafner. "We just try to go in (to Utah) and give them an opportunity to play. Maybe they weren't the star on their high school team, or in JC, but we're looking for good quality student-athletes, and that's what we've found. We're going to continue recruiting those kids."

It's an arrangement that's proving to be positively heavenly.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com