Though classes at Creighton don’t officially begin until Wednesday, chemistry class is already in session for the volleyball team.
Coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said Thursday at Creighton’s media day that the Jays have been working hard to build strong team chemistry this season — something they didn’t have last year when they finished fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference and ended their season with an opening-round loss in the conference tournament.
“Last season, we didn’t blend together very well as a team,” said sophomore setter Michelle Sicner, who earned MVC All-Freshman team honors in 2011. “This season, I think we’re coming in as a stronger team with our chemistry, so hopefully that will take us far.”
Creighton, which plays its Blue-White Scrimmage at 6 p.m. Friday at D.J. Sokol Arena, has a real opportunity to achieve its goals as it returns 76.3 percent of its starts, 66.2 percent of its kills, 73.7 percent of its blocks and 92.6 percent of its assists from 2011. And with 10 contests against NCAA tournament qualifiers, an at-large bid wouldn’t be out of the question.
But to reach the success they’ve had in years past, such as their run to the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2010, the Jays will need more than chemistry. They will need to fill two gaping holes with All-MVC first-team performers Laurel Sanford and Julianne Mandolfo missing this year.
Middle blocker Heather Thorson will provide some continuity in the front row as she returns for her senior season after starting all 31 matches last year, ranking second in hitting percentage and third on the team in kills and blocks. Booth expects two sophomores, middle blocker Kelly Browning and pin hitter Leah McNary, to help replace Sanford. Booth said that Browning “is going to be a phenomenal middle,” and added that McNary, who trained in China this summer, “has the potential to do something special this year.”
Junior outside hitter Natalie Hackbarth started 16 matches a year ago and could receive extensive playing time as well. She and sophomore outside hitter Katie Neisler could play all six rotations, while Savannah Smith, who is coming off an injury, will fight for playing time as well.
In the back row, senior defensive specialist Brooke Boggs fills the veteran role, having appeared in 91 of 95 matches in her first three years. She expects true freshman Kate Elman, who like Mandolfo is an Omaha Marian graduate, to fill the libero position.
“At the moment, (the libero position) is definitely going to Kate,” Boggs said. “She’s an awesome player.”
Creighton returns two of the Valley’s top setters in senior Megan Bober, who has earned All-MVC first team honors twice and was named to the preseason All-MVC team Thursday, and the 6-foot-2 Sicner. Bober said the Jays have yet to decide if, like last year, they’ll use a 6-2 offense, which features two setters, or return to the more traditional 5-1 offense, which allows for a single setter.
“Right now, we’re just trying to find the best lineup that fits,” Bober said. “We don’t really know which position people are going to be in, but we’re working hard to find out where people can play their best to make this team successful.”
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