BLANCHARD — When the football season was initially canceled for the fall in August, Dakota Dykhuis was considering trying out cross country.
The sophomore had a small reputation growing as a young, budding athlete and many people saw that potential and how it could aid the Montabella cross country team. Though Dykhuis, a sophomore running back, was generally opposed to running.
“Going into it I was still against running, I had always hated the idea because I loved football so much,” Dykhuis said.
That’s when Montabella High School Principal Shane Riley, one of the many who believed in Dykhuis, stepped in.
“I’ve got a pretty good rapport with Dakota and I’ve known him for a number of years and I’ve known members of his family,” Riley said. “When he was trying to decide whether he was going to run cross country, I tried to challenge him a little bit. I told him I really respected him as a sprinter, because he’s a really fast kid, but that I didn’t think he had the endurance to be able to run with our current cross country runners.”
Dykhuis noted that this simple, friendly doubt of his ability is what perked his ears and started to light a fire under him.
“He started to talk a little crap and that really got to me because I’m kind of competitive,” Dykhuis said.
“I said, ‘I just don’t think you can beat our state qualifiers,’ and it was as much a challenge as anything else,” Riley added. “So we decided to put a bet on it and when I bet kids, I bet pushups. So we raised the stakes a little bit and we had 100 pushups on the bet that he couldn’t beat both of the state qualifiers in a 5K.”
Dykhuis needed no further motivation as he joined the cross country team and the bet was on. His mission was daunting though, as he needed to beat the two best runners on the Mustangs cross country squad — junior Riley Daily and sophomore James Wilson, both of whom qualified for the MHSAA cross country state finals in the previous season.
“Going into it, I really wasn’t that confident,” Dykhuis recalled. “I had never ran (cross country) before and they just seemed unbeatable, I didn’t know a lot about the sport. I thought there was a very small chance I could beat them. It was interesting right from the first day running with those two. Going into the season, my goal was just to stay with those two but I think that wager helped give me some extra motivation.”
Dykhuis got his first test before the start of the season with a time trial of 1.5 miles, where he finished second, beating out one of the two state qualifiers. Initially, Riley celebrated his victory on the bet, but it wasn’t the 5K race they had agreed to.
“I saw Dakota the next day and I said, ‘Hey, I understand you ran well but I understand you might have lost the bet by just a little bit,’” Riley recalled. “And he looked at me and said, ‘That was a time trial for a mile and a half, it wasn’t a 5K, the bet is still on.’ So he had a race that weekend and, mind you, he’s a good athlete, but he hasn’t run or trained as much as these other kids.”
The bet was on as Dykhuis and the Mustangs took to Benzie Central’s Pete Moss Invitational on Aug. 29 for their first race of the season. Riley admitted that he made the bet knowing it would be difficult for Dykhuis to accomplish, at least right away.
“I expected him to work hard at the race when he ran it and I expected him to run hard, but I just didn’t think he’d have the endurance at the beginning of the season to be able to beat both of those kids,” Riley said. “If he beat one of them, OK, but to be able to beat both of them in the same race, I mean, I have a lot of respect for the other two guys as state qualifiers.”
Dykhuis remembers the course and weather were both great and his body was pumping full of adrenaline. The added motivation of the wager pushed him to new heights and he emerged from the race finishing fifth overall, beating Daily by eight seconds and Wilson by 25 seconds with a time of 18:22.
“I got a text later that Saturday afternoon from coach Kauffman that said, ‘You’re going to be doing pushups,’” Riley said. “Sure enough, in his first race ever as a cross country athlete, having not really run the miles these other kids have put in over the summer, and he doesn’t train much during the week as well, which makes this pretty phenomenal, he came back and beat both of our state qualifiers. So I had to pay up on my bet of 100 pushups for him.”
Riley pulled Dykhuis out of class twice during the next week and proceeded to do two sets of 50 pushups in the hallway. While Riley loves a good bet, he said he learned his lesson with betting against Dykhuis.
“He’s a good-natured, fun-loving kid and I let him know later in the season that I know never to bet against him on anything like that now,” Riley said. “He’s got one of those internal wills that really drives him. It was fun to see him come to cross country. I don’t know what the future will bring for him because I know he loves football and he’s good at cross country, too.”
His cross country season may have started with a bet but it soon became clear that Dykhuis had a natural ability as a distance runner. He consistently was the top runner for the Mustangs all season, placing top-10 in all but two of his races this year, culminating with a 19th place finish at the MHSAA state finals, finishing All-State.
All of this came while being a big contributor to the Montabella football team, as well, where Dykhuis played running back and cornerback. The football acumen was obvious to head coach Tim Webb but even he was surprised to see Dykhuis’ success in distance running.
“I wasn’t sure about the endurance part of it but I noticed him in the summer workouts, he’s got really good coordination and balance so I thought he’d be a pretty good running back and defensive back,” Webb said. “But his mental toughness really comes through as a cross country runner.”
Dykhuis saw considerably more playing time than expected this year due to many injuries ahead of him. With senior running back McKeegan Ferguson injured just before the start of the season, after shifting some other players around to fill in spots, Dykhuis was one of the main running backs for the Mustangs along with junior Caleb Theisen.
“He has a great attitude and he works really hard,” Webb said. “Guys like that are easy to coach and they’re great examples for their teammates as far as their attitude and their effort and Dakota brought that every single day. Many times, when the coaching staff would discuss things and we’d meet and talk about next year, we’d always forget Dakota was just a sophomore just because of the way he handled himself. It’s exciting to think we have two more years to watch him develop and help our program.”
Dykhuis largely missed out on football in his freshman year as the junior varsity program was canceled due to a lack of players. All JV players moved up to varsity, where Dykhuis stood on the sidelines. As such, he was thrilled just to have an opportunity to play in any game this season.
“I was so excited knowing that I’d actually get to contribute to the team, that I’d actually get to make a difference in the games,” he said. “I wasn’t as successful as I wanted to be but it was still an amazing feeling. I love my team, I love the sport and it felt great to make a difference with what I could do on both sides of the ball.”
Not only was he a member of both teams but Dykhuis was exceptional at both sports, earning MSAC First Team All-Conference honors in both football and cross country as a sophomore. The success may have seemingly come out of nowhere, but Dykhuis attributed his success to his summer conditioning. Though he wasn’t a distance runner by nature, his brother, Riley Walkington, a junior at Montabella, and sister, Libby Henry, a 2018 graduate of Montabella, are both veterans of the sport. Walkington has been on the team since he was a freshman while Henry now runs cross country for Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois.
“Both my siblings have ran (cross country) for years so I’ve been around the sport, I’ve experienced it,” Dykhuis said. “During the summer, that’s really where my running picking up. With track season being canceled, I began running with both of my siblings and that ended up being longer distances.”
Dykhuis’ intensity and dedication to his summer conditioning was also, fittingly enough, spurred on by a competition.
“There was actually a competition for basketball between the boys and the girls to see who could run more in the span of a month,” he said. “That’s another situation where that competitiveness kicked in and I ran a lot pretty consistently. Even though the end result wasn’t what we wanted for the boys, it was a big step for me, it kept me running and I think without that, I probably would have stopped (conditioning) pretty early.”
Dykhuis admitted that dual sporting led to a lot of difficult decisions and long days, including Oct. 30 when he ran at the MHSAA regional cross country race in Shepherd in the afternoon and played in the football team’s playoff game in Carson City that night. For good measure, Dykhuis ran his personal best time that day of 16:40, the third-fastest time in school history.
“There was a lot of decision making when it came down to my schedule,” Dykhuis said. “A lot of it came down to my choices whether it was missing meets or missing practices, especially at the end of the season when everything was more important.”
Despite the difficulty, Dykhuis said he is determined to continue to do both football and cross country in subsequent years. He looks forward to continuing to contribute to the football team while chasing down the school’s cross country record of 16:03, set by Tim Sprosty over 30 years ago.
“There’s no way I could choose between the two,” Dykhuis said. “With my love for football and my success in cross, the way I look at it, it’s either both or neither.”