Heading into the season, the players and coaches identified depth as a strength of the Creighton volleyball team. With the second half of the Big East season underway, that depth is being put to the test.
Junior setter Maggie Baumert is dealing with a knee injury that has limited her effectiveness over the last few games and has put her on the bench for seven of the last 11 sets. Then, in Friday’s match against Marquette, junior libero Kate Elman – who had played in the first 330 sets in her Creighton career, dived into a courtside table after a ball and fractured her right forearm.
With two starters out of the lineup, it was next woman up for the Jays, and they proved the preseason praise for the team’s depth was well deserved as Creighton went 2-0 on the weekend, downing Marquette before sweeping DePaul on Sunday.
The Jays may have been without two of their best players, but they had plenty of experience still sitting on the bench, and two players in particular stepped up when called upon.
Senior setter Michelle Sicner has played in plenty of big games in her career, and the team hasn’t missed a beat with her running the offense in Baumert’s place. A two-year starter heading into this season, Sicner stepped back into the lineup against St. John’s on Oct. 17 and brought a spark to the team as the Jays came back from a 10-3 deficit in the first set and finished off the Red Storm in three.
Sicner said she was both excited and nervous when coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth called her name, but after a few points and with the support of her teammates, Sicner quickly settled into her old role.
“Michelle is a phenomenal setter,” senior middle blocker Kelli Browning said. “So is Maggie Baumert. The fact that we can put both setters in really says a lot about our team and how much depth we have.”
Booth has maintained all season that the setter competition in practice has been fierce, with Baumert and Sicner as well as redshirt freshman Kenzie Crawford proving they deserve to play. The Jays feature one of the best attacks in the Big East, leading the conference in both assists and kills, and Booth said she is comfortable with whoever is setting the ball.
Unlike the setter position, the Jays did not hae a specific player identified as the back-up libero. Elman has held down the position in every set of every game since she set foot on campus, and has already broken the school records for career digs and games with 10 or more digs. Losing her in the middle of a game against one of the best teams in the contest was a major blow. Elman suffered the injury in the second set on Friday.
Following the intermission, and with Creighton and Marquette tied up with one set apiece, Booth had to make a decision: who would don the white libero jersey for the rest of the game?
The answer turned out to be someone who had never played the position in her entire career going back to high school — junior outside hitter Melanie Jereb.
“I honestly have no idea as to why I’m the libero,” Jereb said. “The coaches didn’t say anything, they just, at halftime, said ‘Mel, you’re the libero. That’s all the information that I got.”
Jereb is another player who has plenty of starting experience, and although the outside hitter position is not the first place one would typically look for a defensive specialist, Jereb has been a solid two-way player throughout her career. She was third on the team in digs as a freshman, fourth as a sophomore and is third again this season.
“We miss Kate. Kate’s obviously earned the position and is a phenomenal libero, but I do think we have depth in that position fortunately,” Booth said. “Mel did a great job … I’m just really proud of her; she’s just one of those kids that [will say], ‘What do you need me to do?’ If I told her she was setting tomorrow she’d do it with a smile, and she’d probably do a dang good job.”
Elman may not be able to play, but Jereb said she is still making an impact and helping her teammates from the bench as much as possible.
“Kate’s talking to me all the time,” Jereb said.
Jereb was named Big East Defensive Player of the Week for her efforts after posting a season-best 16 digs against Marquette, then topping that with 19 digs in her first full game as libero against DePaul.
The junior has adapted well, but Booth said she is comfortable with multiple players in that spot.
“There are other people that could jump into that libero role; I would say we are feeling out what we think is best, but Mel is steady. Mel brings a great dynamic to the court; but I could say the same for several other kids too,” Booth said.
The hits keep coming, but the Jays keep on hitting regardless of who is out on the court. The timetable for Elman’s recovery is three to six weeks, while Baumert is not expected to return to 100 percent in the near future. Creighton’s depth will continue to be tested, but the Jays are confident.
“It’s really nice because we all feel comfortable playing together,” Jereb said. “We all have confidence in each other, and we know that whoever is on the court will get the job done.