Bluejays eager to face challenging schedule

The Creighton volleyball team will open the season with a nonconference slate that features five teams ranked in the preseason top 25, including former Missouri Valley rival No. 24 Wichita State.

The Creighton volleyball team did some heavy lifting Tuesday morning.

It's something the Bluejays will have to get used to as they prepare for an aggressive nonconference schedule that kicks off with No. 13 BYU on Aug. 30. It also includes No. 11 Hawaii, No. 12 UCLA, No. 20 Kansas and No. 24 Wichita State.

Creighton is one of five teams — Texas, Hawaii, Florida State and Western Kentucky are the others — that will play five ranked teams before league play starts. It's a tough slate that coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth loves.

“We are going to be challenged every time we go on the court,” she said. “I believe they are all matches we can be successful in.”

The 25th-ranked Bluejays, ranked in the preseason poll for the first time, held their media day Tuesday afternoon.

They started the day moving out furniture and pulling down walls at a house in north Omaha, part of their volunteer work with the Abide Network. The home will be gutted and then rebuilt.

“We all had hammers,” defensive specialist Kate Elman said. “It was a great time.”

Elman is one of nine letterwinners who will be back this fall, part of a strong group that Booth thinks can handle anything after going 29-4 last season while facing a schedule almost as tough as the current version.

“I think we have some pretty good pieces,” Booth said. “A great setter, good firepower. I like our backcourt defense.”

Returning starters include middle blocker Kelli Browning and outside hitters Melanie Jereb and Katie Neisler. Leah McNary also rotates in at that position.

Michelle Sicner, who played rightside hitter last year, has taken over the setting role for All-American Megan Bober.

Booth said those two were the best setters in the Missouri Valley Conference last year, even though Sicner didn't play that position after sharing the role in a 6-2 offense her freshman year. Still, that experience will cut down on any first-time jitters as the starter.

Booth calls Sicner a phenomenal setter and said fans needn't worry how the Jays will do without Bober running the show.

“She's got similarities to Megan,” she said. “She's tall, she's 6-2, she's very physical.”

Lauren Smith, a 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman from Lincoln Pius X, and junior Savannah Smith, out of Oakland, Iowa, are fighting for the other middle position opposite Browning, who set a CU and Missouri Valley record with 189 block assists last season. Her 204 blocks tied for the national lead.

Jess Bird, a freshman from Bennington, is a six-rotation player Booth expects to contribute at the outside or rightside hitter position.

Those open spots will be filled in the next few weeks as Creighton focuses on fixing any weaknesses in its attack to get ready for BYU and then a senior-heavy Bowling Green squad at the Hampton Inn Invitational in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Those matches are part of the four tournaments that open the season for CU, all of which will be challenges, Booth said.

“We'll find out right away day one where we match up,” she said.

Elman said her coach calls those matches resume builders. They'll affect Creighton's RPI and ultimately whether the Jays earn another berth in the NCAA tournament.

“We're going to focus on things we can do to get better for conference play,” Elman said. “We are really excited.”

One noticeable absence on Creighton's schedule is Nebraska, which couldn't play the Jays this season due to a scheduling conflict. CU beat NU in five sets during spring competition.

The teams used to play home and away matches and Booth is hoping to see that return. She'd also like to see the Jays compete against the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“I think it's great for the state,” she said. “I think it showcases the phenomenal volleyball we have going on in the state.”

Creighton still will have plenty of tough teams to make things interesting.

Those early matchups will be good preparation for the Bluejays' first season in the Big East.

The Jays open conference play Oct. 4 at Butler. Booth said there won't be room for any letdowns even though Creighton is the only ranked team in the league.

“That's what makes it fun, right?” Booth said. “We might as well play great teams and see how we match up.”

Video: Coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth

Video: Redshirt freshman middle blocker Lauren Smith

Video: Junior middle blocker Kelli Browning

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Please keep it clean, turn off CAPS LOCK and don't threaten anyone. Be truthful, nice and proactive. And share with us - we love to hear eyewitness accounts.

You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.