Creighton volleyball

In 2010 the Creighton volleyball program clinched its first NCAA tournament appearance with an at-large bid. 

The Bluejays missed the NCAAs in 2011 after a 17-14 season, but they returned to the field each of the three seasons before the fall

of 2015.

With a Big East Championship title match victory over Villanova on Saturday for an automatic bid into the tournament field of 64, the volleyball program became the first in any women’s sport to reach the NCAA Tournament four consecutive seasons. 

Additionally, the 2015 squad earned the No. 16 overall seed; the first national seed in program history. 

Senior libero Kate Elman had a hard time expressing what it meant to be honored as one of the top teams. 

“Almost surreal,” Elman said. “I would never have thought that coming in freshman year — even as a senior in high school coming in — that we would be nationally ranked 16 going into the tournament.”

The Bluejays will travel to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for a first round matchup against Coastal Carolina on Friday at 3:30 p.m.

“It’s a great honor,” coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said. “It’s really a tribute to the work ethic of this team and what they’ve done — and really improved throughout the year — and the consistency they’ve showed through the conference season.”

Creighton (25-8) has won 20 of its last 21 matches and finished 17-1 in Big East play, sweeping the regular-season and tournament titles for the second consecutive season. Freshman outside hitter Jaali Winters earned Big East Freshman of the Year honors and joined senior setter Maggie Baumert and junior middle blocker Lauren Smith on the Big East First Team, while junior outside hitter Jess Bird made the Second Team. Bird also earned MVP honors at the Big East Championship.

Booth and assistants Tom Mendoza, Angie Oxley Behrens and Kyle South earned 2015 Big East Coaching Staff of the Year.

As the all-time wins leader in Creighton volleyball history, Booth has led the Jays to the NCAA tournament five out of the past six seasons, (the only appearances in program history), and a 102-30 record over the past four.  

 “They do such a good job of preparing us for matches,” Elman said. “How far this program has come in the last couple of the years is not only a tribute to the great athletes that have come through Creighton, but to the great coaching staff that is leading the whole charge.”

The coaching staff helped the Bluejays prepare for this year’s Big East competition with a challenging nonconference schedule. Creighton competed against four teams that finished in the final AVCA top 25 poll; including two that earned top four seeds in the NCAA Tournament (USC and Nebraska). 

The Bluejays finished 6-7 before Big East play, but the early tests proved beneficial.

“It was definitely a grind and we played a bunch of amazing teams,” Elman said. “Not only USC and Nebraska, but we played a lot of top 25, top 10 teams, and I firmly believe that is why we have made it onto the radar of people more just because of playing those top teams and getting that experience.”

 While Creighton would rather be hosting an NCAA Tournament match, the Jays are looking forward to traveling. 

“This team loves to travel; that’s what we do in the Big East,” Booth said. “I think we’re very comfortable playing on the road so I think we look at it as a great opportunity.”

The Bluejays finished 8-3 on the road and 2-2 in neutral sites matches during the

regular season.

“Road weekends are a blast,” Smith said. “You get to see a different part of the country and always just come out and represent Creighton in different parts of the country.”

In 11 road matches Creighton played in front of an average of 815 fans. The smaller crowds forced the Jays to find ways to

build momentum. 

“Our bench is actually how we survive in matches,” Elman said. “We bring so much energy as a team that sometimes we don’t even notice the crowd. We just play together as a tight-knit team; that’s more what we notice.”

Creighton and Coastal Carolina (25-4) have not met previously. The Chanticleers enter the NCAA Tournament with a program-best 18-match win streak and their second consecutive Big South Championship. 

Two-time Big South Conference player of the year Leah Hardeman leads the team in kills and points per set. 

“The expectations are we go in and play well on Friday night,” Booth said. “I told the team: ‘We are focused on one match;’ that’s been our philosophy all season long and that’s what we’ll do. I hope we play well Friday and we get an opportunity to play after that.”

The winner of the Creighton-Coastal Carolina matchup will face host North Carolina or UNC Wilmington on Saturday. 

“We want to go out there and prove to people that we belong in that No. 16 spot and we’re just going to go out there and play the best volleyball we can,” Elman said.

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