WATERLOO — Luke and Ryan Willis have been pushing each other on the tennis courts from the moment they were old enough to hold a racket and hit over the net.
Growing up in the same grade, the cousins from Waverly have helped elevate their school’s tennis program as a collaborative effort. Their gains took them further than any boys’ doubles combination in school history this weekend as they reached Class 1A’s state tennis finals Saturday afternoon at Waterloo’s Byrnes Park.
Cedar Rapids Xavier’s John Lansing and Charlie Esker held off a late charge from the Go-Hawk juniors in set one and took that momentum into set two for a championship victory, 6-4, 6-2.
“We know that they’re a really good team and we just had to come out and play our game,” said Lansing, who failed to qualify for state a year ago as he was sent to a challenging district that produced both of the 2016 state doubles finalists. “My serve was really on today, I thought, and that really helped us out. We finished a lot of the volleys and didn’t make a lot of mistakes.”
While Xavier reached the finals with a trio of 6-2, 6-0 wins, the Waverly-Shell Rock doubles team’s road to the championship match included a variety of closer tests. The Willis cousins rallied from down 5-3 in the first set and battled back from a second set tiebreak loss to defeat LeMars seniors Kyle Marek and Jake Thompson in Saturday morning’s semifinal round, 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-2.
“Our competitive nature from other sports, it has a lot to do with us winning that match because we were able to fight longer,” Luke Willis said.
The Willis tandem were often the aggressors throughout both of Saturday’s matches, frequently overcoming slow starts by continuing to keep their feet on the accelerator. Their communication and ability to motivate each other revealed a lifelong friendship.
“We’re not afraid to tell each other anything,” Luke said. “We’re so comfortable that it makes it a lot of easier to play the game together.”
Added Ryan, “If we need to say something to get a point, we know what to say, and that’s what you have to have as a doubles team. Sometimes, not everybody is going to be on their ‘A’ game, and you have to be able to talk to each other and know what works for each other.”
The Willis cousins quickly responded after Xavier jumped out to a 4-1 advantage in the first set of the finals by winning four consecutive points for a break of serve followed by Ryan Willis’ efficient hold of serve. Luke Willis later held serve to cut the deficit to 5-4, but Lansing supported his teammate Esker’s serve with strong net play to secure the opener.
Pressuring Waverly-Shell Rock’s serves throughout the second set, the Xavier team’s consistency ultimately was too much to overcome on this afternoon.
“They had a lot of good returns,” Luke Willis said. “It was hard to do what we wanted. They didn’t screw up very often.”
Added Ryan, “You have to be the one to make the shot instead of waiting for them to make a mistake because they’re probably not going to make one. They’re a very good team. All credit goes to them.”
After placing seventh a year ago, this finals run already has the cousins looking forward to making more memories in front of their large family at Byrnes Park.
“It’s cool to get to this point,” Ryan Willis said. “Obviously, we fell a little short today. We’re going to keep working and get back here next year, hopefully.”
In the 1A singles tournament, LeMars’ Jake Malik capped a perfect junior season with a 6-2, 7-5 finals victory over third-year state qualifier Kai Vessey of Fairfield Maharishi.
In the Class 2A state tournament in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City West’s Cole Schneider and Jack Wenzel were the doubles champions while Jiung Jung of Iowa City West defeated Joe Hoff of Iowa City High for the singles title.
Boys’ state tennis
CHAMPIONSHIP—John Lansing/Charlie Esker (Xavier) def. Luke Willis/Ryan Willis (Waverly-Shell Rock), 6-4, 6-2.
THIRD—Sam Laruitsen/Adam Konfrst (Glenwood) def. Kyle Marek/Jake Thompson (LeMars), 6-3, 4-6 (4), 10-5.
FIFTH—Mason Hulse/Corbin Wafful (Boone) def. Kade Carpenter/Marcus Klemme (Spencer), 6-0, 6-3.
SEVENTH—Alex Hinrichs/Ryan Jasper (Xavier) def. Grant Podhajsky/Cooper McDermott (Atlantic), 6-0, 6-1.
CHAMPIONSHIP—Jake Malik (LeMars) def. Kai Vessey (Maharishi), 6-2, 7-5.
THIRD—Nate Meister (Marion) def. Jack Thomas (Assumption), 6-2, 6-2.
FIFTH—Luke Fennelly (Assumption) def. Reed Morris (Osceola), 6-0, 6-1.
SEVENTH—Tanner Finken (Carroll Kuemper) def. Evan Moon (North Polk), 6-3, 0-6, 10-4.