SIMMS — Watch a Simms girls basketball game, and you’ll notice two players with a preternatural sense of where the other is at on the court.
If it seems like they’re sharing one mind, don’t be surprised. They share a last name as well.
Sisters Janessa and Elyssa Willekes lead the Tigers in scoring with sophomore Janessa averaging 17.1 points per game and Elyssa, a junior, adding 10 points a night.
“We read each other really well,” Janessa said. “We know each other really well. She gets the rebound, I run the court and that’s pretty much it.”
The sisters are two of seven children in the Willekes family, which includes parents Don and Hendrika and siblings Ali, Weston, Levi, Luke and Tanner. The siblings are a tight-knit bunch but with just one year separating them, ‘Ness’ and ‘Lissa’ are especially close.
“We’re best friends,” said Elyssa. “Honestly it sounds cliche, but we just tell each other everything and we laugh all the time. We never fight.”
A grin spread across Elyssa’s face.
“Well, sometimes she’ll take too long in the bathroom,” laughed the older sister. “She’ll be hogging the mirror in the morning and I’m not a morning person, so I just shove her out of the way.”
Through their whole life, basketball has been a constant. The Willekes family has a Thanksgiving tradition of finding a gym and playing pick-up hoops with their visiting cousins until its dinner time. Sometimes the sisters will stay a little later to play one-on-one.
“I think (basketball) has brought us closer,” Elyssa said. “It’s at the point where all it takes is one look and we make a play without thinking about it.”
The sister-to-sister connection has paid dividends for head coach Truitt Kinna and the Tigers. Simms is 11-2 overall with a 10-1 record in the competitive District 10C, tied for first with Great Falls Central. The team has won nine consecutive games, including a come-from-behind win against GFCC last week – the Tigers’ first victory over the Mustangs in three years.
And they’ve accomplished all of this without a single senior on the roster.
“The future is bright, but they have to continue to want to play and keep working hard,” Kinna said. “They have very good confidence and always hustle. Full-court, full-time is what I like to tell them, so that’s their mentality.”
And it doesn’t hurt to have two basketball-crazed sisters helping lead the way.
“They see each other very well on the floor,” said Kinna. “It’s almost like they’re twins sometimes because they think alike, they know where each one is going to be. But what I really like is that they’re starting to spread out a little bit more and the passes are starting to hit everyone on the team.”
Competition drives the Willekes sisters, and a common goal is what binds them with the rest of their teammates. Simms advanced to the Northern C divisional tournament in 2017, but was eliminated after consecutive losses to District 9C powers Box Elder and North Star. The 10C hasn’t had much success at the Northern C in recent years, but Kinna and the Tigers believe the tides are turning.
“This year I think we can put some teams in that divisional that can actually compete,” Kinna said. “I think the best teams in the state are going to come from the North once again. We were young last year, went to divisionals as freshmen and sophomores and now we’re sophomores and juniors. I think our talent was already there, but our confidence has gotten a lot better.”
With several other key contributors like Taylor Jones, Madi Cicon and Maddie Bloom on the roster the Tigers know the ceiling is high for the next few years.
“We’ve definitely progressed since the first games,” said Janessa. “We’ve started working together more as a team. Our offense has definitely come together more, and we’re just starting to lead each other a lot better, too. We’re understanding each other and really clicking.”
“I think we can take state,” added Elyssa. “We have everything. We have speed, we have the mentality. We’ve got a lot.”
But most importantly for the Willekes sisters, they have each other.