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By Randy Whalen

This Tuesday, May 14, it can all come together in one nice historical package for the Joliet West boys' volleyball team. 

When the Tigers travel to West Aurora this Tuesday for a 5:30 PM match, they can not only capture their first conference championship in school history, but they can also set a new school record for wins. 

Entering this week, Joliet West is 26-5 and 9-0 in the Southwest Prairie Conference. West Aurora (21-12) is also 9-0 in the league and still has to play second-place Plainfield East (21-9, 9-1) in the conference. But whichever team wins this Tuesday's matchup will have the head-to-head victory. The Tigers finish the regular season with a home SPC matchup against Oswego (17-13, 5-3) on Thursday, May 16 at 5:30 PM. 

The next Joliet West win will also set a school record for victories in a season. The 26 wins this season have tied the school record which was set by the 2015 team, which went 26-12 and won the school's only regional title at the moment.

"People are talking about our record and how exciting it is," Joliet West coach Tara Litwicki said. "But the job isn't done. Every day it's about keeping a level of composure. We can't be happy, we have to complete the job." 

When Litwicki stepped in as head coach last spring, she knew the team had potential coming off a 23-win season in 2022. But there were some struggles last year and the Tigers finished 19-14.

This season has been much better. After opening the season with a 5-2 record, the Tigers took off, winning 14 in a row and 18 of 19 through May 2 to improve to 23-3. 

But it may be a pair of losses that prove to be the catalyst for a successful postseason. Those were 25-18, 25-21 to host Lincoln-Way East (22-10), which was the 2022 state runner-up, and 27-25, 25-22 to last year's state runner-up, Lyons Township (26-4), on Friday, May 3, at a triangular. 

"Sometimes we win, sometimes we learn," Litwicki said following the triangular loss. "We identify our weaknesses from those matches."

Joliet West did just that, bouncing back to win a crosstown matchup 25-20, 25-17 on Monday, May 6, at Joliet Catholic Academy.

"Every time we've had a loss we've bounced back big time," Joliet West junior middle hitter Michael Meloy said. "I don't care about records or stats, I just want to be in the moment,"

Meloy was in the moment against JCA with five blocks and two kills. Senior outside hitters Thomas Fellows and Nathan Fleischauer finagled seven kills apiece. Junior right side hitter Drew Johnson added five kills, and senior setter Landon Brouwer brought 15 assists and six digs.

"Our block is our biggest improvement for us," said Meloy, who stands 6-foot and believes he can verticle jump to 10 feet 7 inches. "We just try to do our best and step up."

The Hilltoppers (7-23) lost to the Tigers 25-17, 25-22 on March 23 at the Joliet West Invitational. Last week JCA was led by senior right side hitter Miles Czerkies with six kills and freshman libero Ben Ajamin Alssio with eight digs.

"We played together and used some different formations," JCA coach Jeffrey Budz said. "We just needed to go on some runs ourselves.

"Joliet West played very clean volleyball. Everything was perfect on their end. It's always nice to play someone so close to you."

The Tigers' next game wasn't close proximity-wise. But it was another SPC win. That was a 25-27, 25-20, 25-19 on Tuesday, May 7 at Oswego East (21-12, 4-5). Fellows (14 kills) and Fleischauer (12 kills, 4 blocks) led the way. Brouwer (30 assists) and senior libero Connor Herre (13 digs) were also big.

Then, on Thursday, May 9, Joliet West celebrated Senior Night with a 25-19, 25-22 victory over a much improved Joliet Central (14-16, 2-7) team 

Fleischauer and Johnson led the way with eight kills apiece. Brouwer handed out 20 assists, Meloy mashed three blocks, and Herre had 13 digs. The six Tiger seniors are Brouwer, Matthew Christopher, Fellows, Fleischauer, Herre, and Alexander Ogugua. 

Although he's not a senior, Meloy knows what has made this group special.

"This is one of the best experiences," Meloy said. "We've all known each other for a long time and it's been so much fun. Most of us play club for UNO and are all friends. So we have the chemistry."

The Tigers are the No. 4 seed in the toughest sectional in the state. That's the Bolingbrook on. The postseason opens next Monday, May 20 as Joliet West hosts its own regional and faces No. 29-seeded Montini at 5 PM. The semifinals are the next day at 5:30 and 6:30 PM and the regional final is slated for Thursday, May 23 at 5:00 PM. 

If the seeds hold up, it would be the Tigers taking on No. 5 seed Bolingbrook in the rubber match between the two this season.

What will put Joliet West over the edge to win a regional?

"Complacency is the enemy," Litwicki said. "We have to find that motivation and keep rocking." 

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