Reality hit Alexis Tolefree and Hailey Estes early in the week.
The two buds for life were readying to play their last game together for Conway High. The 7A title game against North Little Rock would be their third straight state championship game. It would be their final game to play for head coach Ashley Nance and her assistant, Jeff Gifford, whom they flourished playing for as Lady Cats.
“The last time playing for them ... it’s emotional,” Estes said. “I cry thinking about it.”
“I’m the tough one,” said Tolefree.
“What are you talking about?” said Estes. “You cry more than me.”
Such is the banter between friends who have been playing together, and occasionally gainst each other, since the first grade. The two besties whose paths have converged beautifully for more than a decade will soon separate, at least physically.
“We have a bond that can’t be broken,” said Tolefree, who has signed with the University of Central Arkansas.
“Being together on teams so long, we’ve grown as family; we’re family,” said Estes, who has signed to play with Henderson State. “It helps to have that continuity. We love each other. We’re on the same page going into a game.”
The journey to basketball sisterhood started in Upward Basketball, then with the Boys and Girls Club, then with AAU teams and later at Conway. The two have celebrated winning a state championship. They have consoled each other after losing a state championship game.
“We’re like sisters,” Estes said. “We have our fights. But we talk and it’s OK.”
“Our mothers are close; we have no choice,” said Tolefree.
Along the basketball journey, the two discovered they are yin and yang.
“Their personalities complement each other.” said Nance. “Lex is the extrovert. You will see her in the middle of the student section or the loudest one in a group of people. Hailey is more of the quiet introvert. Although she would be laughing and having a good time, she wouldn’t be the center of attention.
“I think they play that way. Lex is the flashy player with a lot of personality. You watch her play and you can tell exactly what mood she is in. Hailey is the poised one who settles everyone down. She would be the one to talk in the locker room. If they both were one way or the other, it would not be a good combination but because they are so different is what makes it work so well.”
What do they like about each other?
“It’s her dedication and hard work,” said Estes of Tolefree. “She comes to practice with a smile on her face in a good mood. It kind of brings us all together.”
“There’s not anything not to like about Hailey,” said Tolefree. “When you get down, she knows what to do to pick you back up.”
The two have brought the deep post route to girls high school basketball. Several times in any game, Estes will get a rebound or deflection then hurl it downcourt hitting Tolefree perfectly in stride for a layup. Estes is a soccer goalie. She knows how to execute the deep pass and her ball instincts are superb.
“We’ve played together so long, it’s like telepathy,” Estes said. “I know where she is gonna be and how much to lead her. And if she doesn’t get the layup, I know she or someone else will be there to put it back in.”
“Sometimes she doesn’t have to look up,” said Tolefree. “She gets me the ball where I need it.”
While Tolefree is the prime scorer, often going off for 30 to 40 points in a game. Her 48 points against North Little Rock early in the season is a school single-game record.
Estes is the player who does the little things that aren’t as noticeable, but she’s capable of big things such as the 3-pointer she hit in the final seconds to defeat Little Rock Central, putting Conway in the state title game.
“I had complete confidence in her,” said Tolefree. “Me, it would have probably been an air ball.”
“I had confidence because coach has confidence in me,” said Estes. “Coach Nance was a shooter and she’s helped me with my shot form.”
That relates to the respect and love both have for their coaches.
“They (Nance and Gifford) are like parents,” Estes said.
“They are mom and dad when you are away from mom and dad,” said Tolefree.
“They know when you get down. It’s just being there and having someone to talk to.”
The dynamic between the two emits an unselfish tone that has created chemistry among the entire Conway team.
“When other people are scoring, Lex doesn’t use that against them,” Estes said. “Some people would be jealous. She’s very humble ... thankful for what her teammates do.”
“When I’m missing, my teammates will tell me to keep shooting,” Tolefree said. “When I’m hitting, they’ll tell me to keep shooting. Sometimes, they’ll give me ideas to make my shot start falling.”
“They have always been close but I think this past summer when they played summer basketball together and once they became the leaders of the team this season, they have really gotten a lot closer,” Nance said. “I believe they are seeing the uniqueness of their relationship and knowing that their playing days together are coming to an end has really created a unique bond between the two.”
Tolefree will be playing in NCAA Division I in Conway. Estes will be playing in Division II in Arkadelphia.
“She plans to be at my games when she can and I’ll go to hers when I can,” said Tolefree. "We'll talk."
“We’ll get together and go eat,” said Estes.
“Definitely go eat,” said Tolefree. “We love food.”
“She can come to my dorm room,” said Estes.
“Definitely, I want to see your room,” said Tolefree.
So goes the ongoing chatter between BFF’s.