Following In Dad’s Footsteps

Written by Bob on December 18th, 2009

The Hunhoff family of South Dakota and California has a long tradition of men’s fastpitch softball pitching.
Courtesy Photos / Lori Hunhoff

HARRISBURG, SOUTH DAKOTA – If he were to call it quits and chuck his bat, glove and spikes in the closet and say, “I’ve been there and done that,” no one could really blame him.

For after all, Benjamin “BJ” Hunhoff – in the lingo of fastpitch softball – indeed has been there and done that.

He’s played and won at the international, national, and state championship levels. He’s collected a showcase full of most valuable pitcher and player awards.

By now if you’re thinking, let’s let the “old man,” ease back into his recliner and enjoy his well-deserved retirement, here’s the catch:

BJ Hunhoff is just 20-years-old. His fastpitch rocket is nowhere near leveling off, much less coming to a landing.

His thirst to compete, his drive to improve, his love of the game, and his desire to follow in his dad’s footsteps remain as strong as ever.

And it all started with John Hunhoff. BJ’s dad and the man he calls, “my hero.”

Lon Anderson crouches in the ready position at first base for the Sioux Falls Scarlets. The 54-year-old’s glove grazes the ground as he glances over at the left-handed youngster toeing the rubber.

The scene is all so familiar to Anderson. All so comfortable. It’s as if his buddy, John Hunhoff, were still here, still firing those left-handed risers and drops. But it’s been 12 years since the two friends played fastpitch together.

But there in John’s place stands a mirror image. A living, breathing likeness that has made the 2009 Sioux Falls City League season, oh so enjoyable. When BJ Hunhoff agreed to pitch for the Scarlets, it was as if a part of John returned as well.

“They have such a strong physical resemblance,” Anderson said. “Playing with BJ is like playing with John. His dad would be so proud of him.”

John Hunhoff would indeed be proud of his oldest son. And surely his eyes would light up and his chest would swell with pride if he were here to see his son on the softball diamond. And hear of his many feats.

In listing BJ Hunhoff’s fastpitch achievements, it’s like where does one start?

As a youngster, BJ teamed up with James Hartman. And the lefty-righty combination hurled the Hartford Explosion to every ASA Boy’s divisional national championship the organization has to offer.

And at age 13, BJ’s pitching exploits caught the attention of the USA Junior Men’s team coaches. Soon they asked him to tryout for the national team. He made the team as a 14-year-old, and pitched for the national team in 2005 and 2008 in the International Softball Federation (ISF) Junior World Championships.

In California, Tony Hunhoff packs his suite case. It’s the Labor Day holiday and he’s headed to the 2009 ASA Class B Men’s National Tournament in Prescott, Arizona.

Tony’s the eldest of the Hunhoff brothers – four years older than John. A brother he misses dearly. The Prescott trip will be memorable and a special time. For he will be teaming up with his nephew, BJ. And together they will form the Hunhoff pitching staff for the Bay Area Pirates.

“It’s one of those moments I will always cherish,” Tony Hunhoff said.

As with his son and his brother, John Hunhoff had his share of acclaim on the softball diamond. His team, the Sioux Falls Chiefs was well respected in fastpitch circles. He played in national tournaments, and he pitched his team to a South Dakota state championship. John Hunhoff was known for his toughness, competitiveness, but always the consummate team player.

His fastpitch star was rising until 1997.

As a little boy, BJ remembers tagging along with his dad to the ballparks for league games and weekend tournaments. They’re some of his fondest memories. His mom Lori, and brother Andy, came along as well. It was a family affair. A summertime of softball and family fun.

Between games, dad played catch with young BJ – then just a 5-year-old. Back and forth they threw the ball until John’s manager signaled him to start warming up for the next game.

“I was always around the softball field with dad,” BJ Hunhoff said. “I saw how much fun dad had when he played ball and that gave me the drive to want to play as well. My dad got me started and he got me hooked on the game by playing catch with me and throwing the ball back and forth.”

But in 1997 throwing the ball back and forth between father and son came to a halt. At the age of 36, cancer claimed the life of John Hunhoff. The loss was hard on BJ, just 7 at the time, and his brother Andy, a toddling one-year-old.

Lori Hunhoff recalls her late husband’s strength and determination. He battled the cancer for three years as if he were pitching against the toughest lineup of hitters he had ever faced.

“He played ball through the chemo treatments,” she said. “Softball is a Hunhoff family tradition.”

After John died, Lori and the boys became very close. “Me and the two boys had a philosophy of, ‘if we can be on the same team and stay close together we will make it,'” she said.

But to make sure that Lori and her boys did make it, family and friends – many from within the fasptich community – came to their aid.

Just a few miles down the road from the Hunhoff home near Harrisburg, live Lori’s mom and dad – Sam and Dorothy Vanderwerf. Her dad became the boy’s go-to guy, their mentor, who took them on hunting and camping trips.

He taught his young grandsons how to work with their hands, how to fix things. He instilled in them character and the ethics of hard work and responsibility. Above all else grandpa and grandma Vanderwerf showered their grandsons with love.

Along with his dad, BJ says his grandpa is, “my hero.”

And in their South Dakota softball family, Lori and Tony Hunhoff say that Rick Lang took BJ under his wing and became a mentor, a role model.

“Rick is a close friend of the family,” Tony Hunhoff said. “The Lang’s are very supportive, a family that made a difference.”

Winter has set its icy grip across South Dakota. But you won’t find dust settling on BJ’s and Andy’s softball gloves. They’ve already started working out and perfecting their pitches for the 2010 season.

Just last Saturday the two brothers were practicing their pitching in the Harrisburg High School gymnasium.

17-year-old Andy looks to BJ as his pitching coach, his advisor on the fundamentals and finer points of the game. When BJ played in the ISF World Championships, Andy followed his brother’s journey throughout the tournament on the Internet.

And when Andy needed a coach for his fastpitch team this past summer, BJ volunteered.

“BJ is there to back Andy in a heartbeat,” Lori Hunhoff said.

Where you find the boys playing sports you will also find mom. At Harrisburg High Tigers’ football games, Lori cheers for Andy, a 5-foot-10, 195-pound lineman, whose team finished second in the Big Eight Conference and advanced to the second round of state playoffs.

And when BJ played baseball and soccer for the Tigers, mom was there to cheer him on. The Tigers won the 2007 state soccer championship with BJ playing center sweeper. He performed so well, that he was selected to the All-State team and earned Honorable Mention at the state tournament.

He enjoys soccer, but fastpitch softball reigns at the top for BJ. Just like his dad.

“BJ and his dad are pretty much out of the same mold,” Lori Hunhoff said. “They are both big and stocky. The both have the same demeanor, and they both want to be out there competing. BJ wants to follow in his dad’s footsteps and Andy does too.”

What’s in store for BJ Hunhoff? Well, the past two seasons may be hard to top.

He’s coming off a 2009 season where the teams he pitched for won both the ASA and NAFA 23-Under national championships. And in 2008 he got his first taste of ISC World Tournament action with the Bar of Appleton. He finished with a 1-1 record, and in 13 innings struck out 16 as the Bar finished 14th out of 32 teams.

Those two years followed a splendid 2007 season in which his teams won the ASA 18-under National Championship, the ISC 19-Under World Tournament Championship, and the NAFA 23-Under World Series.

But the ultimate honor, one he will never forget is when he got the call that he had been selected to join the 2007 USA Men’s national team that played in the ISF World Championship in Prague, Czech Republic. As an 18-year-old, he is one of the youngest players to ever make the USA team.

“I was pretty excited when I found out I had made the team,” he said. “It was huge honor. It made me real proud to represent my country in Prague.”

National ASA officials have describe BJ Hunhoff as, “a hard-throwing left-hander, who is considered one of the top young American hurlers …(and) truly one of the rising stars in the men’s fastpitch game today, and could become the face of USA Softball in the future.”

Heady words for one so young to live up to. But also goals that Tony Hunhoff believes his nephew has a chance of achieving.

“The motivation and the dedication is there, and a large part of that is from his dad,” he said. “But what BJ has accomplished is 95-percent BJ. He’s put a lot of time and effort into his pitching; he’s pushed himself, and he’s still growing, still learning.”

Now in his junior year at the University Center of Sioux Falls, Hunhoff plans on a career in construction management. But his career goals will have to share time with fastpitch softball.

“I see myself playing a long time,” he said. “Dad got me started and I’ve wanted to follow in his footsteps. I knew that if I kept playing he would be proud of me.”

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1 Comments so far ↓

  1. Dave DeBoer says:

    Great article, I played against John. He was a talented picher and would be very proud of BJ. The passion his dad played with can be seen in his son BJ. Keep on chucking BJ.

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