Wadena-Deer Creek baseball coach Kyle Dykhoff used to joke that his nephews were bat boys for his amateur baseball team when they were young, but they never actually picked up a bat. The reason Justin Dykhoff, his brothers and cousins didn't do their duties as bat boys for the Bluffton Braves was because they were off to the side playing their own game of baseball.
"Baseball is life to our family," Kyle said. "Everywhere we go is to a ball field for six months out of the year."
He's not kidding. Before Kyle was brought home from the hospital after he was born in Wadena, he went to an amateur baseball game in Wolf Lake, Minn., his dad and brother were playing in.
"That explains it right there," Kyle said. "Not much else to say. It's what we do, it's what we love."
The tradition has continued. Now a senior pitcher at Wadena-Deer Creek, Justin has come a long way from his job as a bat boy. He grew up playing baseball every night possible with his two brothers, along with nights at the field for his dad and uncle's amateur games. Those games in the yard with his brothers didn't usually end with anyone losing because games were postponed due to fighting.
"Whiffle ball games still end like that," Justin said.
Now Justin makes people whiff at baseballs. He has pitched 24 1/3 innings this season and has given up one hit and two walks, while striking out 43 and throwing three seven-inning no-hitters. The one hit he has given up this season was an infield single by Alex Koep, who led off the game against Parkers Prairie.
"It's actually possible to give up a hit," Justin said he heard someone say in the field after Koep's hit.
Justin's dad, Wayne, played baseball for Wadena High School, graduating in 1990 and playing college ball with Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls, Minn. Kyle, Wayne's brother, graduated from Wadena-Deer Creek in 2005 and also played for Minnesota State-Fergus Falls. Justin's older brother, Jake, graduated from Wadena-Deer Creek last year and is playing for Minnesota State-Fergus Falls.
Justin will join Jake at Minnesota State-Fergus Falls after his senior season at Wadena-Deer Creek.
"Besides the defense behind me, my family has been everything for my baseball career," Justin said. "My dad just about every night either has us pitch to him or he hits ground balls. All that work is coming into effect and you can see it."
Justin was the No. 2 pitcher for the Wolverines last season, catching his older brother, Jake. He moved to the No. 1 starter this season with his younger brother, Joshua, catching for him.
"He's always played a little bit in the shadow of his brother Jake," Kyle said. "Jake throws harder, but Justin has developed three pitches where he can put them wherever he wants. He put a few runners on via walk last season and now he's found a way to zone in."
Justin has thrown 225 strikes and 70 balls this season. In the sixth inning of his first start last season, he was at 105 pitches. This season, his three no-hitters have been via 91, 86 and 72 pitches in seven innings. He can hit the upper 80s, but his command of his fastball, curveball and changeup is what has set him apart this season.
"He's just putting pitches where he wants," Kyle said. "He's just ahead of everyone by the time the season started. Whereas some kids are picking up a ball for the first time since August, he has been in the gym every Sunday or Tuesday throwing with his brothers or throwing bullpens in the backyard. He was in mid-season form at the start of the year. He was ready for this season."
Justin's first cousin, Wyatt Hamann, is a senior on the Wadena-Deer Creek baseball team. The two have been together for their entire baseball careers, which began with the two ignoring their duties as bat boys at Bluffton Braves games.
"The Dykhoff family is so big in baseball in the Wadena, Deer Creek and Bluffton area," Wadena-Deer Creek athletic director Norm Gallant said. "Check any high school or amateur box score from the last 50 or more years and there is likely a Dykhoff on the team or a relative of the Dykhoffs."
Justin grew up idolizing former Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau. He appreciated the way Morneau seemed to always be happy when playing the game. Justin's family calls him smiley, a nickname coined by his mother.
"I smile all the time," Justin said. "I couldn't even tell you where it comes from. I've always smiled a lot."
Justin will be back on the mound Friday for 10-0 Wadena-Deer Creek, after driving in a run and hitting two doubles in an extra-inning win Thursday over Sauk Centre. His older brother is supposed to come see him pitch for the first time this season.
Regardless of what happens, after the game, Justin will run a couple miles to keep himself fresh. Regardless of what happens, Justin will be smiling.
"He's always smiling," Kyle said. "Everywhere you see him, whether he's playing baseball or outdoors, he's smiling. That's his personality. He's laid-back and likes to have fun."