Joe Watkins

For Lyons Township High School senior Joe Watkins, May 28 marked the final match for two of his volleyball families.

The Lions nearly beat rival Hinsdale Central on its home court in the IHSA sectional semifinals but lost 23-25, 25-23, 25-22 after also losing to the Red Devils in the March 22 season opener in two sets.

“We took the first set and then we kind of fell a little bit, but it was still a good match all the way around,” Watkins said. “We kind of stood with each other the whole time.”

On May 26, the Lions (25-13) won their third straight regional title by beating Benet 25-17, 21-25, 25-20 in the Oswego East Regional final and equaled their most victories in a season since 2019.

Watkins and seniors Sam Levinson, George Taylor and Will Uhlir were part of the past two regional championship squads.

Other key contributors included seniors Markas Venclovas and Luke Etheridge, juniors Leo Wiemelt and Thomas Hennessy and sophomores Luka Kostic and Carson Turner.

“I am very happy with our growth as a team this year with great leadership from our seniors and juniors,” LTHS coach Brad Skendzel said. “[Hinsdale Central] was a great match for both teams and we were unable to take advantage of our lead in the second set.”

Watkins (13 kills, 4 total blocks), Levinson (9 kills, 3 blocks, 5 digs), Turner (28 assists, 4 digs) Wiemelt (6 kills, 4 blocks) Taylor (5 blocks) and Kostic (4 kills, 4 digs) were top performers against Benet.

Levinson (13) and Kostic (10) had double-digit kills in the 23-25, 25-18, 25-22 regional semifinal victory over Oswego East on May 22. Turner (30 assists) and Levinson each had eight digs.

The 6-foot-4 Watkins hoped he provided leadership as well as becoming a strong outside hitter. In charge of the team’s Instagram page, he was excited that about 10 LTHS volleyball alumni and girls soccer players attended Saturday’s match.

Last season, Watkins was a right-side hitter behind two seniors.

“I came in for three rotations just to block,” Watkins said. 

The 6-2 Levinson transitioned well to outside hitter from being a shorter middle in 2021.

“I thought [outside] would be a better change for me because I do want to play in college,” Levinson said.

The 6-8 Taylor, who recalled minimal playing time last season, helped with blocking, one of the Lions’ consistent strengths. LTHS had nine blocks for points against Benet and eight against Oswego East.

“Some teams really like tipping against us because they’re afraid of the block,” Taylor said after the Benet victory. “That’s also a good sign. It’s a win-win either way.” 

Watkins is the fourth and final LTHS volleyball player from his family, following brother Robert (2014 graduate) and sisters Emma (2018) and Julia (2011), a member of the 2010 state champions. Their mother, Natalie, played at Grove City (Pennsylvania) College.

“My mom got our whole family into it and then growing up, I went to all of my sisters’ games, brother’s games,” Watkins said

Like Robert, Watkins will play collegiately for nationally ranked McKendree University in downstate Lebanon.

“I’ve been joking I’m going to go to McKendree and be better than him, but that’s going to be my goal,” Watkins said.