With temperatures soaring to mid-summer levels, spectators sought the shade of the massive conifers at Byrnes Park in Waterloo as they watched the unfolding drama. Those hearty enough to endure the sweltering heat wave, were treated to a blockbuster of a match pitting last year?s runner-up team from Waverly-Shelrock against Maharishi School.
Waverly-Shelrock?s senior duo, Luke and Ryan willis, are cousins. Luke?s dad, Jim, defeated former state singles champ and Maharishi School standout, Kyle Cleveland in a substate match played at the MUM Rec Center some 25 years ago. The Willis boys have been doubles partners since they were ten years old and were making their fourth and final run at a state at a state title. As the #1 seed in the tournament, the Willis tandem was clearly the team to beat.
Having partnered with one another for less than 8 weeks, Maharishi?s team of Kai Vessey and Devan Burke were undefeated in 2018, earning them the tournament?s #2 seed. At the time when the Willis brothers began dreaming of winning a state title, Devan Burke had not yet held a tennis racket. ?Devan?s been playing for two and a half years,? said Pioneer Coach, Steve Briggs. ?For him compete with guys who have been playing since age 5 or 6 is unheard of, but Devan?s not your average athlete.?
Both teams moved through the draw without difficulty, setting up a showdown under an unforgiving Saturday afternoon sun.
The Willis team struck first, pulling ahead 4-1 in the opening set behind aggressive volleys and a few overheads showcasing NBA hang-time. ?Both those guys are 4 sport athletes. Both will play college baseball,? explained Briggs. ?They?ve got great hands and quick feet and huge determination. Will-This rather than Willis seemed like an appropriate name. Those guys were diving for balls on the asphalt.?
Maharishi struck back quickly, evening the match at 4-4 before the Willis? took the opening set 6-4.
?After the first set, our guys knew that they needed to match their opponent?s aggressive play,? said Briggs. Vessey and Burke came out firing and played their best set of the tournament by far, dominating the second set, 6-2, with an impressive array of topspin lobs, penetrating forehands, and explosive overheads. The Pioneers had Waverly against the ropes. Their alpha player, Luke Willis, was spending time between points bent over, his hands on his knees. ?Luke?s an incredible athlete; among the best I?ve seen in seven years attending the state finals,? said Briggs. ?He was chasing balls all over the court, but with the intense heat, it was clearly taking a toll on him.?
After a 10 minute break, the 3rd and final set opened with the unexpected. Just a few points into the deciding set, Luke became ill. The heat combined with his herculean efforts were exacting a toll on the senior. The time the Waverly star spent in the corner of the court swung the momentum of the match. When play resumed, Pioneer veteran Devan Burke wasn?t himself. After the Pioneers fell behind 2-0 in the final set, Luke Willis became sick again, forcing play to stop while he recovered.
?Devan is an incredibly compassionate person and he didn?t want to play against a guy who was sick and suffering,? explained Briggs. ?We talked about it at the change over, but Devan was clearly upset.?
A few games later, with a resurgent Burke leading the attack, the Pioneers leveled the match at 4-4. ?Waverly is just twenty minutes from Waterloo and they had a fairly large contingent cheering for the Willis team, but we also had our supporters, including quite a few players and coaches from other teams,? said Briggs. ?Kai and Devan are popular among the players.?
As the match reached the 2 hour mark, the heat appeared to be the greater foe. Luke Willis looked dazed, a prize fighter going the distance on determination alone as his cousin cheered him on.
?I was standing with Luke?s dad and he wasn?t at all concerned,? said Briggs. Luke?s dad, Jim Willis had suffered a similar bout with heat sickness in a high school match. Luke?s mother, on the other hand, requested a medical timeout, but Luke waved off his coach more than once.
With the match reaching a frenetic conclusion, both teams showcased their considerable skills. But it was the Willis brothers high flying act that proved the difference. ?Luke and Ryan were relentless at net, and, in doubles, that usually wins,? explained Briggs. ?Their energy levels decided the match.?
?After the award presentation, I overheard Ryan Willis telling a local reporter that he and his cousin have dreamed about holding the trophy since they were little,? said Briggs. ?It was best doubles match I?ve seen in seven years in Waterloo. We?re incredibly proud of our guys.?
?As the players and coaches drove off, I couldn?t help thinking the Willis cousins had been dreaming of this day for far longer than Devan?s been playing the sport,? observed Briggs. ?Kai and Devan are champions in every sense of the word. They just needed a little more time to dream.?
?I?m not about to let Daniel Zhu?s remarkable state tournament be overshadowed by his teammates? play. Daniel was on court longer than any other player in the tournament... by far,? said Briggs. ?Daniel played five matches in two days and three of those matches went the distance.?
In his quarter-final match, Daniel nearly upset 3rd seeded, Daniel Buchanan, of Waterloo Columbus. In arguably the best singles match of the tournament, Zhu lost 6-4, 1-6. 6-3. He then had the unenviable task of taking the court again as he competed for 5th place. ?Only two matches were being contested by 5pm. Daniel?s was out there battling in another nail biter,? said Briggs. ?It would been easy to pack up and head home after losing the opening set, but Daniel fought on despite intense the fatigue from having played seven sets in 90 degree heat.?
Zhu was on the brink throughout the match, only pulling ahead at the finish line to secure a 4-6, 6-4, 11-9 victory over Atlantic?s Nile Peterson. ?Daniel was cramping in the car afterward,? said Briggs. ?Three singles match is too much in a day is too much, but not only did Daniel find a way, but he repeated his heroics the next day against a pesky Le Mars player.?
?Daniel was struggling with fatigue in his 7th place match against Le Mars, but once again he showed a lot of courage, winning the deciding tie-break, 10-8 after being down 8-4. Daniel is finding ways to win whether he?s playing his best, or not. As the great Aussie Rod Laver used to say, ?anyone can win with their A game, but can you win with your B game.??
In the state final, Kai, Devan, and Daniel won in an variety of ways and not ever victory was reflected in the outcome. The Pioneer trio certainly won the respect of the players, coaches, and spectators at the tournament.
Now, along with their teammates, they move on to the state team finals in Des Moines.
?Des Moines will be their last high school competition,? said Briggs. ?It?s difficult to imagine a Pioneer team without Kai, Daniel, Devan, and Karthik. They?ve embodied so much of what our community is all about. I?d love to see our team bring home the prize.?