By Randy Whalen
Tara (Mikuzis) Litwicki is no stranger to Joliet West volleyball.
A 2004 Joliet West graduate, Litwicki played on the highly successful Joliet Township girls volleyball teams two decades ago.
Now she's taken over as the new head coach of the boys volleyball program. Neil Lucchetti was the previous coach, starting in 2018 and going for five years. He led the Tigers to a 23-9 record last season, their most wins since going 26-12 and capturing a regional championship in 2015.
Now Litwicki is aiming for the Tigers to have that same sort of success this season. They are off to a good start so far with a 5-2 record, including going 3-2 in their own Joliet West Tiger Challenge Varsity Volleyball Tournament on Friday, March 24, and Saturday, March 25.
"Our Joliet West Tigers went into this tournament knowing we were going to face some talented teams," Litwicki said. "We finished the weekend 3-2 taking third in the Silver bracket. We had a long week, having played seven games (17 sets) in just five days. I'm really proud of them. This weekend gave us the platform to build off of. We know what we need to execute in our practices and know that our hard work during that time will overflow into our future games.
"I want to personally thank all of the staff, volunteers, referees, coaches, and teams for a great weekend."
It was a great weekend of volleyball as local power, Lincoln-Way West outlasted Stevenson 25-16, 28-26 to capture the championship on Saturday afternoon.
It's the third tourney title for the Warriors (6-1), who also won the Tiger Challenge in 2017 and 2019. Last year, Joliet West won the tournament with wins over Lincoln-Way West in the semifinals and a 25-21, 26-28, 25-23 over Stevenson in the title match.
This season's stat leaders from the tourney for Joliet West were junior setter Landon Brouwer (67 assists, 27 kills), sophomore setter Nolan Fellows (48 assists), junior outside hitter Nate Fleischauer (40 kills), and junior outside hitter Tommy Fellows (33 kills).
"What is working is running our offense, getting to free balls, and passing well," Tommy Fellows said. "With coach (Litwicki) it feels like a whole new program. She knows exactly what she's talking about. There are going to be a lot of good things."
In the pool play at the tournament, the Tigers lost to Joliet Catholic Academy 25-21, 25-23 but rebounded to defeat Bolingbrook 25-27, 25-20, 15-13 on Friday. They concluded pool play on Saturday morning with a 22-25, 25-17, 15-8 win over Riverside-Brookfield.
That put the pool into a three-way tie with JCA, Joliet West, and R-B. Based on the tiebreaker, JCA won the pool and ended up finishing fourth in the tourney. The Tigers were second and R-B third. In the Silver Division bracket, Joliet West lost to Silver champion, Oswego East 25-21, 25-14 in the semifinal but beat Lane Tech 25-19, 25-21 for third.
"I played on the varsity last year with my brother, Logan, who is now at Quincy University," Brouwer said. "Most of the time we will run a 6-2 with Nolan (Fellows) as the other setter."
Joliet West opened the season on Tuesday, March 21 with a 25-21, 25-18 home win over Lemont. Then, on Thursday, March 23, the Tigers won a thriller with a 24-26, 25-22, 31-29 victory over visiting Providence.
"It helps us expand and learn what each other can do," Fellows said of winning some close matches to start the season. "We are off to a strong start, like last year."
A year ago the Tigers started 7-0. But, considering a coaching change and a tough schedule, 5-2 is a nice start to this season.
"We're expecting a lot," Brouwer said. "We have to stay focused but we expect big things. Coach Litwicki is awesome and we know we can come through and win our close games."
When Litwicki was a four-year varsity player for the then-combined Joliet Township girls volleyball team, they won a regional title and had over 30 wins in her senior season of 2003. She went on to play in college at Middle Tennessee State and brings a lot of passion, drive, and knowledge to the Tigers this season.
"We've got a great group," Litwicki said. "We just have to minimize our mistakes."