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Youngsters rising up for the Bluejays

Youngsters rising up for the Bluejays

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Two down, one to go.

The Creighton volleyball team has already won the Big East regular-season and tournament titles.

“Our next goal is the Sweet 16,” sophomore Jess Bird said.

The Bluejays will take the first step Friday at 4 p.m., when they face Oregon State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Kansas and Arkansas-Little Rock will play in the other game at the Kansas Expocentre. The championship is Saturday at 6:30 p.m.

Bird is one of three younger players — all from Nebraska — who have helped the Bluejays accomplish the first two goals.

The 5-foot-11 outside hitter from Bennington has averaged 3.44 kills, 3.04 digs and 0.56 blocks per set in Creighton’s last seven matches while hitting .267. She led CU with 18 kills in the Big East title match against Seton Hall.

Since her return from arthroscopic surgery, CU has won 19 of 21 matches.

“Jess is our lone six-rotation hitter besides our setter. She’s the kid who does it all for us,” coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said. “She carries a really large offensive role for us. She’s one of our best defensive players and one of our best serve-receivers.

“Call her our glue kid, she just does it all.”

And she does it all while working through pain in her knee that limits her time in practice. Bird downplayed the problem, saying everyone has some aches at season’s end.

She’s just glad she was able to come back and help the team.

“I have such great teammates and they are such a blast to play with,” she said. “They were there for me, too. It made me want to come back and play with them again.”

Two other youngsters have stepped up for the Bluejays — sophomore Lauren Smith and freshman Marysa Wilkinson.

Smith, a 6-foot-4 middle blocker from Lincoln Pius X, was the Big East tournament MVP after firing 21 kills with two errors in 33 swings (.576) during CU’s two matches last weekend. In the last 12 games, she’s hit .459 and ranks third on the team with 109 kills.

Booth said she’s peaking at the right time.

“She’s just hitting at such a high clip, it’s making her really difficult to defend,” Booth said. “Her blocking also has really gone to the next level recently, too. So that’s been fun to see.”

Wilkinson, a 6-footer from Lincoln Southwest, was expected to be a backup at middle but moved to the right side when Bird went out. She’s started almost all year.

She had a few hiccups hitting, but that’s been solved. Wilkinson is averaging 1.98 kills per set at a .261 clip.

“I think we’ve found the right set for her and that led to a lot of success,” Booth said.

Booth said the Bluejays need those three and everyone else to reach the Sweet 16 in Ames, Iowa. Though none of the Topeka teams is ranked, they all have their strengths.

Booth hopes a tough early season schedule has prepared the Jays for anything.

“I hope that experience will give us a depth of experience this weekend to help us,” she said. “I think we have an opportunity. I know all four teams feel that way.”

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