Published Tuesday, December 10, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 11:24 pm
VOLLEYBALL
Second-round finish is beginning of Jays’ push for next year

Second in the Big East and one win from the Sweet 16.

Both give the Creighton volleyball team something to shoot for next season.

“We want to push the envelope,” coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said. “We still have the opportunity to take a step forward next year.”

The Bluejays will do that with every starter returning from a team that wrapped up a 23-9 season with a four-set loss to Kansas on Saturday in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

The defeat was a disappointment, but Booth said her team fought to the end and showed good chemistry. Creighton won an NCAA match for the third time in four seasons.

Fan reaction showed how far the program has come. While some congratulated the Bluejays on a great year, others said they were sorry the season was cut short.

“How expectations have changed,” Booth said. “I’m so proud of this group for making the tournament again.”

Booth has been busy this week meeting with players and staff about how the season went and where work is needed. Feedback from players has been positive, and Booth said she thought they showed maturity in handling the ups and downs of the year.

There were no big surprises during CU’s debut in the Big East, but Booth said the quality of play was very high and the league was stronger than many anticipated. Creighton finished 12-4, behind only Marquette (15-1).

“I think at different times, we were locked in and we lost a couple of matches we all felt we shouldn’t have lost,” she said. “It’s something we need to learn from and make sure we’re ready to do every night.”

The Bluejays also need to be more aggressive serving, hit at a better clip offensively and be composed at the end of games, Booth said. But no radical changes are needed.

“I think we are doing a lot of great things,” she said. “I think we are moving in the right direction.”

Three 6-footers will aid CU’s push next season. Marysa Wilkinson of Lincoln Southwest and Brittany Lawrence of North Platte St. Patrick’s have signed with the Bluejays. Lincoln Northeast’s Toni Tupper has pledged to walk on.

Wilkinson is experienced at all three hitting positions while Lawrence, a 6-foot-3 middle, is more of a raw athlete without the club experience of some other recruits. She’s a big jumper, Booth said.

“We don’t know exactly where they’ll play long term, but I think both of them are outstanding players.”

How they mix with the current team — which will only lose Savannah Smith, who is graduating early — is part of the fun of being the coach, Booth said. Every team develops a different dynamic.

“Sometimes you feel like they peak out and sometimes you feel they could have gone a little higher,” Booth said. “That’s the challenge. You have to push the right buttons, and we’ll start doing that in January.”

That’s when the Bluejays begin strength and conditioning training. It’s an important time, Booth said, when players become bigger, stronger and faster.

Expectations will be high with so many people returning, but the coach said she isn’t concerned.

“We’re going to set high goals and have high standards,” Booth said. “That’s an awesome position to be in to feel we’re in position to reach new heights.”

Four Jays make all-region

Creighton’s Kelli Browning and Michelle Sicner were named first-team All-East Region on Tuesday.

Leah McNary and Lauren Smith made the second team.

Browning averaged 2.45 kills and a Big East-best 1.53 blocks per set. She hit .323 and ranked ninth nationally in blocks per set.

Sicner averaged 10 assists, 2.68 digs, 1.47 kills and 0.97 blocks per set. She led CU with 16 double-doubles and four triple-doubles.

McNary averaged a team-leading 3.04 kills per set. Smith was fourth with 2.24 kills and second with 1.16 blocks.

Players and coaches honored by the AVCA are eligible for spots on the All-America team, which will be announced next week.

Several area players were named to the Midwest Region.

Chelsea Albers and Sara McClinton of Kansas, Chelsey Feekin of Wichita State and Kendall Kritenbrink of South Dakota are on the squad.

Iowa State’s Mackenzie Bigbee and Kristen Hahn also were honored.

Contact the writer: Marjie Ducey

marjie.ducey@owh.com    |   402-444-1034

Marjie Ducey covers state colleges, women's sports, high schools, select sports, outdoors, holes in one, soccer, running and any other type of interesting story. She also puts out the metro edition and does some updating on Omaha.com.

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