Creighton volleyball looks to make a run in the NCAA tournament
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) -- When it comes to volleyball in the Cornhusker state, Creighton has always been little sister to the powerful University of Nebraska program 50 miles away.
My, how little sister has grown.
The Missouri Valley Conference regular-season and postseason champion Bluejays are on a school-record, 16-match win streak and ranked No. 21 heading into their second NCAA tournament in three years.
Coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth, in her 10th season after taking over a team that won three matches in 2002, has overseen the steady rise of a program that benefits from being located in a state that produces more Division I women's volleyball players per capita than any except Hawaii.
The Bluejays have one of the top players in the country in senior setter Megan Bober, who grew up 45 miles away in tiny Murdock. Two other native Nebraskans are in the starting lineup, and there are a total of six on the roster.
In the RPI, the best gauge of strength, Creighton (28-3) is No. 26 going into Friday's match against Marquette (27-6) in Minneapolis. That's up from No. 74 a year ago.
"To get in that mix is really exciting, and now the next goal is to consistently be in the top 20," Bernthal Booth said. "The ability of this program to be a Sweet 16, Elite Eight team is there. I think there's talent in this state. We have the facilities, we have the academics. Our men's basketball and men's soccer programs have proved it's possible" to be among the best in the nation.
Creighton, however, will always find it difficult to escape the Huskers' shadow.
Nebraska has won three national championships, is making its 31st NCAA tournament appearance and this year is the No. 4 national seed. The Huskers also have sold out 179 consecutive matches, the longest sellout streak in women's college athletics.
While the Huskers play in front of 4,500 fans every home match, Creighton averages about 1,100.
Bernthal Booth said she isn't envious. In fact, she grateful for Nebraska's longtime success because it spawned a statewide volleyball culture conducive to developing more than enough players to go around.
Creighton freshman libero Kate Elman said she was typical of most girls who came up in the Omaha volleyball community.
"I do have to admit, when I was growing up, I did want to be a Husker," Elman said.
She received a scholarship offer from Nebraska, but she had already committed to Creighton when it came. No regrets, she said.
"Absolutely love it here," she said.
Bober pledged to Creighton as a high school junior, and she said Nebraska never was a serious option. She's the 2012 MVC player of the year and is the only player in the country to average 9.5 assists, 0.90 blocks and 1.75 kills per set.
As well as Bernthal Booth has recruited, she said Nebraska is among the seven or eight programs able to land the best of the best every year. Creighton, she said, remains in the second tier but is gaining.
"When I say there's a gap, if we played tomorrow, I think we'd have a shot," she said. "We might beat them two out of every 10 times or something like that. I don't mean to say we wouldn't have a shot."
The Bluejays are 0-12 all-time against Nebraska, losing 36 of 37 sets. The teams didn't play this season, and Bernthal Booth said no matches are planned in coming years.
Nebraska coach John Cook, through an athletic department spokeswoman, declined to comment on Creighton's program.
Creighton wants to play in Lincoln and Omaha in alternating years, with an offer to play the Omaha match at CenturyLink Center and split gate revenues, Bernthal Booth said. The teams played at the arena in 2008 and drew 8,037.
Bernthal Booth said she gets along fine with Cook - "Put that on the record," she said - but is disappointed he won't bring his team to Omaha.
"We feel we've made a really nice offer and we're still being told no," she said.
A more pressing concern is this weekend in Minneapolis. The Bluejays have six holdovers from the 2010 team that upset Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. If they beat Marquette, they play either Liberty (25-7) or a Minnesota team (24-7) that beat Nebraska during the regular season.
Creighton is assigned to the West Lafayette, Ind., regional, the same one as top national seed Penn State. Nebraska is in the Omaha Regional. They couldn't meet until the national semifinals in Louisville - a long shot for the Bluejays.
"We've had a lot of success so far," Bober said, "so we know that our goals are definitely not just the first round."
Bernthal Booth has no idea how far her team can go. All she knows is that she likes the toughness of the Bluejays, who are 4-1 in five-set matches.
"This team knows how to win," she said. "We really preach in our system that if you're going to lose, you go down swinging, and I think this team gets that."