One of the most dominating players in northern Illinois and a two-time all NIC-10 middle linebacker at (Machesney Park) Harlem High School, A. J. Wentland still didn’t have a lot of big-time NCAA Division I offers when it came time to choose a college three years ago.
In fact, the 6-foot-4 235-pound Wentland had no Division I offers.
“I had a couple of NCAA Division I-AA schools looking at me, but they weren’t really offering anything,’’ Wentland said. “I remember during my senior year (McKendree assistant) coach Trent Poelker came to school and they pulled me out of class one day and he told me about McKendree.
“He told me that it was a program that would be transitioning to NCAA Division II and that he was looking for players who wanted to be part of something new and help build it into a top-level program. I liked that idea.”
Three years later, under the guidance of McKendree coach Mike Babcock, the Bearcats are well on their way to being that top-level program and Wentland is on his way toward being one of the top NCAA Division II middle linebackers in the nation.
A first-team all Great Lakes Valley Conference middle linebacker a year ago, when he set a McKendree record with 132 tackles, including 61 solos, Wentland began his junior season a week ago with a record-setting performance as the Bearcats rolled to a 50-27 road win at West Liberty University.
Wentland finished the day with 22 tackles. That mark broke the record of 21 tackles in a single game, which was set by the late Cory Wilson in a 2003 game at St. Xavier University.
For his performance, Wentland was chosen as the GLVC’s Defensive Player of the Week.
“I credit a lot of it to preparation ... watching and studying film and learning the tendencies of the other team. It’s just all part of being ready for each play,” Wentland said. “I really have to give a lot of the credit to my teammates. What they were able to do in order for me to be in position to make tackles. I wouldn’t have been able to have the day I did without those 10 other guys. They were great all day.
“The most important part of this is that we’re 1-0. One day, one game at a time. That’s the way we’re looking at it.”
Wentland wasn’t the only Bearcats player to earn GLVC honors on Saturday.
Senior quarterback Isaac Fisher threw a school-record six touchdown passes — finishing 27-of-36 for 353 yards — to earn the GLVC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Wentland isn’t only one of the top players on a defensive unit which includes all-American defensive end Lucky Baar, he’s also one of the leaders of Babcock’s 3-4 defensive unit which features several big, strong and elite athletes.
“No question, AJ’s one of the leaders on this football team. He’s a vocal leader and he leads by example,’’ Babcock said. “He’s a big, strong quick football player with good speed and he’s one of those players who just is always around the football.
“Some of that is just instinct. But a lot of it is also preparation. He’s one of those players who works hard in the weight room, but he also put the same amount of work into watching hours of game film and working and learning about his opponent in the classroom.’’
Wentland’s success at McKendree didn’t come overnight.
Like all high school athletes making the jump to the college ranks, Wentland went through a period of transition of learning to balance life away from home for the first time, the athletic and academic responsibilities required and also being a typical 18-year-old freshman in college.
During his freshman year, Wentland played on special teams and as a reserve linebacker.
“The biggest adjustments for me were the faster speed of the game and playing against bigger and better athletes,’’ Wentland said. “Then learning to deal with more responsibilities of being a college student-athlete.
“I remember when I came down here (McKendree), I liked it right away. It was just great to be part of a brotherhood with my teammates and working hard everyday to help this football program grow and help it become successful. We’re all really close both on and off the football field. I know that I would do almost anything for them and I know they would do the same for me.’’
The son of Stan and Sheila Wentland, A.J. Wentland comes from an athletic family. His dad played college football at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb and his older brother is an assistant defensive football coach at Harlem High School.
“He’s tough on me ... but only because he wants to make me a better football player. He’s my older brother,’’ Wentland said, laughing. “But it was my dad who really taught me the game and where I get my love of the sport. The thing about it was that he never pushed me. If I wanted to play that was fine. If I didn’t that would have been fine too.”
Wentland and the Bearcats will be back in action Saturday, when they host Northwood (Mich.) University at Leeman Field. Northwood defeated McKendree in a close game in Michigan a year ago.
“We felt like we let that one slip away and so it left a bad taste in our mouths,’’ Wentland said. “This time we’ve got them in our house and we’re looking to turn things around this time. It’s also a big game heading into the GLVC next week.
“We feel that with the coaching staff and the players on this football team that we’re improving and building this program into one that will be strong for years to come. The goal has always been to win the conference championship. To be able to win that ring would be incredible. But again, it’s one game, one week at a time. We can’t and won’t look ahead.’’\