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Creighton year in review: Season left a lot of 'what ifs,' but Jays focus more on journey
ATHLETICS

Creighton year in review: Season left a lot of 'what ifs,' but Jays focus more on journey

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Creighton was on the highest of highs after it beat Seton Hall to win a share of the Big East championship. But less than a week after this game, the season was canceled because of the pandemic.

If you ask Creighton’s athletic director about the momentous ending to the 2019-20 regular season for the CU men’s hoops team, he’ll tell you to think back on the beginning.

The Jays had an all-league caliber contributor, Martin Krampelj, turn pro late in the offseason recruiting cycle. They lost two more projected rotation players, Jacob Epperson and Davion Mintz, to injury in October. A few more bumps and bruises left Creighton short on bodies for much of the nonconference schedule.

It was not the most ideal set of circumstances to produce a champion.

But those CU players — who ultimately earned a share of a regular season league title in the toughest conference in the country (per NET ratings) — had their minds made up before the adversity hit.

You could see it by the way they carried themselves on and off the floor, Bruce Rasmussen said. And you could see it from Day 1.

“This was a group that came to work every day,” Creighton’s 26-year athletic director said. “You could tell that our kids loved each other and loved the game. They were willing to play a role for the betterment of the team … and they recognized the value of each player.”

That’s what Rasmussen will remember most about last season’s Jays, whose run to a shared league championship highlighted the 2019-20 campaign for Creighton athletics.

Coach Greg McDermott’s Jays, who won 11 of their final 13 games, clinched a share of the Big East crown by beating then-No. 8 Seton Hall 77-60 in front of a raucous crowd on March 7.

The fans stormed the court. The players hoisted their trophy. A banner was unveiled in the CHI Health Center rafters.

The Jays (24-7) ranked No. 7 in the final AP poll, the highest end-of-year ranking in school history. They picked up a program-record six wins over ranked teams — only two squads in the country had more.

McDermott was Big East coach of the year, the first such honor for CU since Dana Altman earned MVC honors in 2002.

Creighton won the league’s tiebreaker and was awarded the No. 1 seed in the Big East tournament for the first time. And it was on track for a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament before the season was halted due to the pandemic.

All of those milestones certainly are worth celebrating, Rasmussen said.

But the characteristics and values exhibited by the team are what he most appreciates — and what he hopes CU fans applaud, too.

“We focus so much on the ‘what’ that we don’t always focus on the process or the journey, and we don’t focus enough on the ‘why,’” Rasmussen said. “We know what we accomplished. But what’s most important to me is why it was accomplished.”

The players and the coaching staff deserve credit for that, Rasmussen said.

“Five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now, we’ll look back … and I hope we really appreciate what this group was able to accomplish, and why,” he said.

Baseball

Record: 5-10 overall

Big East tournament: canceled

NCAA tournament: canceled

Preseason prediction: picked first by league coaches

Season highlights: Creighton earned a 7-0 win over Seattle on opening day. The Jays had a thrilling extra-inning victory at UNLV the next weekend. They also won their home opener 6-1 against Portland.

How it ended: The team was traveling back from a midweek road trip in Minnesota when news started to trickle in that the coronavirus pandemic might overhaul the traditional sports schedule. The college baseball season got canceled soon after that.

Standout/star: Dylan Tebrake. An offseason of hard work elevated the sophomore right-hander to the Jays’ No. 1 starter spot. He proved to be ready for the role. Tebrake had a 2.05 ERA over five starts, recording a team-high 24 strikeouts and holding opposing batters to a .186 average.

Other top performers: Senior reliever Jonah Smith (1-0, 0.00), senior reliever John Sakowski (1-1, 2.35), sophomore starter Tommy Steier (0-1, 3.55), senior third baseman Ryan Mantle (.318, 9 RBI), junior catcher David Vilches (.333, 11 runs), senior shortstop Parker Upton (.424 on-base, 10 runs)

Trending: Up. Yes, CU did start slowly in 2020, but its inexperienced roster was likely to find a groove in time for league play. Instead, Creighton did not get the opportunity to build on its landmark season of 2019, when the Jays won the Big East regular season and tournament titles before making their first regional in seven years. The good news? Now all of CU’s young talent returns — plus a promising group of recruits joins in.

Men's basketball

Record: 24-7 overall, 13-5 Big East (tied for first)

Big East tournament: canceled

NCAA tournament: canceled

Preseason prediction: picked seventh by the league coaches

Season highlights: In the nonconference, the Jays knocked off 2019 national runner-up Texas Tech, romped rival Nebraska and survived a slugfest against Oklahoma. They found their groove in February, going 6-1 with four wins over ranked teams. They finished 17-1 at home, and capped off the regular season with a championship-clinching 77-60 victory against Seton Hall.

How it ended: Creighton played the first half of its Big East tournament opener against St. John’s in front of a few hundred people inside Madison Square Garden. The game got called off at halftime. The season was canceled a couple hours later.

Standout/star: Ty-Shon Alexander. The junior guard was named first-team All-Big East. He led the team in scoring (16.9 points per game) and he guarded the opposing team’s best perimeter player each night.

Other award winners: Sophomore guard Marcus Zegarowski (honorable mention AP All-American), junior guard Denzel Mahoney (Big East sixth man of the year), Greg McDermott (Big East coach of the year)

Trending: Up. Creighton overcame injuries, handled depth concerns and learned from early defeats. The result was a bounce-back season for the ages. The Jays went from an NIT team in 2019 to a national title contender in 2020. The pandemic ended up spoiling CU’s postseason. But now Creighton — which could return six of its top eight rotation players — will enter the 2020-21 season with something to prove.

Women's basketball

Record: 19-11 overall, 11-7 Big East (tied for third)

Big East tournament: lost in quarterfinal

NCAA tournament: canceled

Preseason prediction: picked fourth by league coaches

Season highlights: Creighton beat Nebraska for a fourth straight season. CU knocked off then-No. 11 DePaul in January — the Jays have never defeated an opponent ranked higher. They won four of their final five regular-season games.

How it ended: The Jays were waiting to learn if they would earn a berth to the NCAA tournament for the third time in four years. They had a good shot. But the season got canceled before they found out.

Standout/star: Jaylyn Agnew. The senior forward was named Big East player of the year. She led the league in scoring (23.1 points per game in conference play). She set a CU single-game record with 43 points on Senior Day. She also ranked first in the nation in free-throw shooting (95.0%).

Other award winners: Junior guard Temi Carda (All-Big East honorable mention)

Trending: Slightly up. Creighton missed the postseason for the first time in 12 years in 2019. But the Jays rebounded this past winter, despite injuries that kept them from reaching full strength until February. Now, the Jays are going to lose Agnew and veteran guard Olivia Elger. But CU welcomes in a strong five-player freshmen class. And its returning vets have the potential to handle bigger roles.

Men's soccer

Record: 8-7-2 overall, 4-4-1 Big East (tied for fourth)

Big East tournament: lost in quarterfinal

NCAA tournament: did not qualify

Preseason prediction: picked second by the league coaches

Season highlights: CU earned a draw at then-No. 6 North Carolina in the season opener. It enjoyed dramatic home wins over UNO and Tulsa in September. The Jays beat Butler in double overtime in their regular season home finale and then drew with then-No. 3 Georgetown four days later.

How it ended: Creighton fell 1-0 to Butler in the opening round of the Big East tournament. The Jays, ranked No. 48 in the RPI, did not earn an NCAA tournament berth.

Standout/star: Yudai Tashiro. The senior midfielder, who played through a shoulder injury most of the year, led Creighton with six goals. He earned a spot on the All-Big East first team.

Other award winners: Senior forward Luke Haakenson (All-Big East second team), senior defender Younes Boudadi (All-Big East second team), junior midfielder Kuba Polat (All-Big East third team)

Trending: Down. First-year coach Johnny Torres and the Jays dealt with some bad luck this past season. There were matches where CU barely had enough guys to field a squad (due to injuries). Creighton will surely have more available depth in 2020. The Jays have work to do, though. They’ve now missed three straight NCAA tournaments. The goals haven’t changed. But their on-field performances have fallen short of the lofty expectations of a soccer powerhouse.

Women's soccer

Record: 8-7-3 overall, 2-4-3 Big East (eighth)

Big East tournament: did not qualify

NCAA tournament: did not qualify

Preseason prediction: picked ninth by the league coaches

Season highlights: The Jays started the year 6-1, securing wins over Kansas State, Iowa State and Oklahoma. They earned a draw with then-No. 10 Georgetown. They snapped a five-match winless streak with a late goal in a 1-0 victory at Seton Hall in October.

How it ended: Creighton suffered a 1-0 defeat to Villanova in the regular season finale. Had the Jays won, they would have earned a spot in the Big East tournament.

Standout/star: Skylar Heinrich. She tied a school record with four goals in a match against Eastern Michigan. The Elkhorn grad finished with a team-high 11 goals. She was named the Big East freshman of the year.

Other award winners: Senior midfielder Taryn Jakubowski (All-Big East first team), defender Jordy Rothwell (Big East all-freshman team)

Trending: Slightly down. The season started with such promise but ultimately ended without a Big East tournament berth. The Jays had themselves to blame. They lost or drew seven league games -- and they out-shot their opponent in five of those. They had their chances. But Creighton is apparently still striving to develop a winning culture. CU brought in 15 newcomers last year. It’s adding nine more new faces this offseason, including Iowa’s Gatorade player of the year, midfielder Abigail Santana.

Softball

Record: 13-12 overall

Big East tournament: canceled

NCAA tournament: canceled

Preseason prediction: picked fourth by the league coaches

Season highlights: The Jays scored a program-record 24 runs in a win over Toledo on the season’s opening weekend. They put together a four-game winning streak in February. They also suffered a hard-fought 2-1 defeat to then-No. 11 Florida State.

How it ended: Creighton was in the middle of a five-game tournament in Madeira Beach, Fla. After the Jays earned a 2-1 win over Central Michigan, they learned the news that their season had been halted.

Standout/star: Kiara Mills. The sophomore infielder led the team in runs scored (15) and ranked second in RBI (18). She also launched three home runs.

Other top performers: Senior outfielder Ashley Cantu (.427, 10 runs), senior catcher Mikaela Pechar (.383, 15 RBI), sophomore infielder Sam Alm (.340, 13 sacrifice bunts), junior pitcher Kiele Miller (5-7, 2.73), sophomore pitcher Mikayla Santa Cruz (7-4, 2.74)

Trending: Slightly down. Creighton is now two years removed from a second-place finish in the 2018 Big East standings. The Jays could soon be back on an upswing, though. They didn’t even get to play a home game in 2020 so it’s difficult to project how the season might have finished. Freshmen and sophomores comprised about half of the spots in the everyday lineup. Improvement was anticipated. CU just didn’t get a chance to show it.

Volleyball

Record: 25-6 overall, 17-1 Big East (first)

Big East tournament: lost in semifinal

NCAA tournament: 1-1, second round

Preseason prediction: Ranked No. 18 in the top 25 poll; picked second by league coaches

Season highlights: The Jays beat three eventual NCAA tournament teams to win the UNI tournament in September. They went on a 14-match winning streak midway through the year. They clinched the Big East regular season title for the sixth consecutive season.

How it ended: Creighton was inches away from the Sweet 16. A potential match-winning shot landed just wide. No. 7 overall seed Minnesota took advantage of the extra life and clinched a five-set victory in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Standout/star: Brittany Witt. The Big East libero of the year led the league in digs per set (5.09). She became the program’s all-time digs leader (2,079). She was also an All-Big East honoree and a third-team All-American.

Other award winners: Outside hitter Keeley Davis (Big East freshman of the year), senior setter Madelyn Cole (All-Big East), senior middle blocker Megan Ballenger (All-Big East), sophomore outside hitter Jaela Zimmerman (All-Big East), Kirsten Bernthal Booth (coach of the year).

Trending: Slightly down. The Jays didn’t win the Big East tournament and they weren’t an NCAA tournament host team. So they fell just short of a couple checkpoints reached in recent seasons. But Creighton still earned its place within the ranks of the elite. And it will bring back the centerpieces of its offensive attack and blend in a top 30 recruiting class next year. Plenty of success is expected again.

Cross Country

The women finished seventh and the men placed eighth at the Big East championships.

Golf

The men's and women's seasons were canceled about six weeks before the Big East championships.

Tennis

The women were off to an 11-4 start before the season was halted. The men had a 6-5 record.

Women's rowing

The season ended two months before the annual West Coast Conference Championships.

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