WAVERLY — Waverly-Shell Rock seniors Luke and Ryan Willis will be trading their tennis rackets for baseball gloves following a third consecutive trip to the Class 1A state meet this weekend at Waterloo’s Byrnes Park.
The doubles partners and cousins are multi-sport athletes looking forward to their final summer on the diamond together as members of a tradition-rich Go-Hawks baseball program.
They each plan to play collegiate baseball in the Iowa Conference. Ryan will be following in the footsteps of his older brothers, Eric and Tyler, at Wartburg College. Luke plans to join a Simpson College program where Tyler is currently on staff as a graduate assistant coach.
Yet, before their focus shifts to baseball, these two-time state doubles placewinners are determined to make a run at securing some more tennis hardware.
The Willis cousins were defeated by Cedar Rapids Xavier’s Charlie Esker and Jon Lansing in straight sets during last year’s championship debut, following a seventh-place finish as sophomores. Esker has graduated and Lansing is in this year’s singles draw, leaving the Go-Hawks’ tandem as the top returning placewinners.
They’ll be tested within a field that includes last year’s singles runner-up Kai Vessey and his partner Devan Burke of Fairfield Maharishi. Dubuque Wahlert seniors Riley Collins and Louis Ungs are also threats after competing against the top doubles teams in a Mississippi Valley Conference filled with larger schools.
In total, nine of the 16 1A state doubles qualifying teams are comprised entirely of seniors.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Ryan Willis said. “After what we did last year, there’s really no way to say that our goal is not to win the state championship. I think we’re ready to take our final swing at it and see what happens this weekend.”
Ryan’s relationship with Luke isn’t much different than the connection he shares with his older brothers. The cousins live within walking distance of each other and have shared interests for football, tennis and baseball. Their fathers even served as coaches for their youth baseball teams growing up, with Luke and Ryan often spending mornings competing against each other on the tennis courts.
Waverly-Shell Rock head coach Kimberly Tiedt admits she was initially unsure if pairing the cousins was going to be a good idea.
“I think they’ve come a long way,” Tiedt said. “Their freshman year, they didn’t always play together. I was a little bit nervous putting them together because they’re like brothers, and so sometimes you could feel tension between them.
“But overall, they really work well together. They’re really different. Luke is calm and collected, and Ryan is as competitive and intense as they come. They balance each other out and they make for a really good doubles team.”
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While they hadn’t played much doubles prior to high school, this pairing quickly clicked. These cousins prefer working together with each other over singles competition.
“Once we got together it was like, this is how it should be,” Luke recalls. “I remember just how easy it was to talk to each other. We’re basically brothers. We know what each other is thinking and how they’re feeling.”
Last season’s breakthrough run into the state finals assured the Willis cousins that they have enough talent to compete with the state’s best by playing within themselves. Their only loss this season came by a narrow 7-5 second-set margin during a tournament against Mason City’s top tandem.
“We kind of figured out we don’t have to do anything too special,” Luke said. “Just do what we do and see what we can accomplish.”
Competition in practice has helped the Willis cousins grow this season. Fellow Waverly-Shell Rock seniors Thomas Kenealy and Adam Ramker completed a W-SR doubles sweep at the district tournament.
Few 1A schools can match this type of doubles depth.
“I’m excited that we can see what Adam Ramker and Thomas Kenealy can do at the state tournament, too,” Luke said. “It’s really cool to have everybody have success. It’s kind of a confidence-booster knowing that we see people that are good every day when we play with them.”
Pushing each other to find success, these cousins with contrasting tennis styles and personalities have become a dynamic blend.
“We never have to worry about having one of us not being ready to go,” Ryan said. “We’re always ready to go. Even if I show my emotions more than he does, he cares just as much about it.”
Soon enough, these longtime friends will find themselves in different college towns. The lifelong teammates may eventually become Iowa Conference baseball rivals.
“It’d be something different, something both of us never had to do before,” Ryan said. “Even in rec ball we were always on the same team because our dads coached.”
Asked if he’s looking forward to potentially pitching to Ryan, Luke laughed, “I’m hoping so.”