Creighton volleyball coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth is keeping her team's move to the new Big East in perspective.
There are plenty of challenges to be addressed before the Bluejays take the court next season. But what they'll find there might not be as daunting as what they're used to in the Missouri Valley Conference.
“I think they're very similar types of leagues,” Booth said. “This isn't like what men's basketball or women's basketball are jumping into.”
There are plenty of questions on how competitive Creighton's basketball programs will be against some of the high-powered opponents they'll be facing in the new league. But volleyball, like several of Creighton's other sports, appears to be moving into a situation that will not require any massive reorganization of priorities.
None of the other schools that will make up the new league can be classified as a traditional volleyball power. That description also fits the Bluejays, though the program clearly is building momentum.
Creighton heads into the new league having won both the Valley's regular-season and tournament championships last fall. The Bluejays finished the season in the second round of the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons. The team they beat in the first round last fall? Marquette, which shapes up as the best of the other eight teams that make up the new conference.
The six schools moving from the old Big East — Villanova does not fully fund its volleyball program and will not compete in the new league — have combined to win two conference championships and make seven appearances in the NCAA tournament.
Xavier and Butler, moving from the Atlantic 10, each have made two NCAA appearances and won two league championships.
Only two of the schools — Marquette and Xavier — finished in the top 100 of the NCAA's RPI last season. Creighton faced five Valley schools last season ranked in the top 95.
With four starters back from a 29-win team, the Bluejays figure to be one of the teams — if not the team — to beat in the race for the new Big East's first championship.
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“One of our goals will be to win the Big East title,” Booth said, “but that would be the same goal we would have had if we were still in the Valley.”
In the coming months, Booth will dig into the specifics of what it will take to contend for a championship on the court. For now, she and her fellow coaches have a more pressing concern.
“The schedule is the huge thing right now,” she said.
The coaches have talked several times since the March 20 formal launch of the new Big East. They have put together a number of round-robin scheduling models that have been forwarded to the league's athletic directors. With no commissioner or league staff in place, the athletic directors will be in charge of some of the more pressing issues facing the new league.
One of the scheduling problems is the nine-team configuration.
“It's an awkward number,” Booth said. “We've tried to come up with a schedule that is equitable for all teams. We came up with five or six potential schedules that we narrowed down to three.
“None of the schedules is perfect but they're all doable. Now, the athletic directors are looking at them, and hopefully will get a final decision soon.”
Once a schedule is in place, Booth and her staff can start making decisions on some of the logistical issues. In the past, Creighton's volleyball team did most of its travel by bus.
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Now, there are plane flights that must be booked. The Bluejays will be staying at different hotels and eating at different restaurants when they hit the road for conference matches.
“A lot of our questions are with the things that are so taken for granted,” Booth said. “I've been in the Valley for 10 years. I know what restaurants to eat at. After 10 years, I'm ready for some new restaurants but all those little things have to be worked out.
“It will be more work but it also will be exciting.”
She senses that excitement in her team as it prepares to trade trips to Terre Haute, Ind., and Cedar Falls, Iowa, for visits to Washington, D.C., and New York. Booth and her staff already have started stressing to the players that they, too, must keep the move to the new league in perspective.
“One of our biggest jobs is to make sure our players don't think they're going on vacation every other weekend,” Booth said. “We've discussed as a staff of maybe taking one trip a year and trying to get there a little earlier so that we can see the city.
“We're going to win matches and that has to be the priority but some of my kids have never have been to Washington, D.C. Going to the Smithsonian would be something. Part of what we're doing here is trying to build people, not just athletes.”
Booth doesn't anticipate any drastic changes in how she and her staff will search for athletes to stock Creighton's program.
“I think recruiting will change for some of our sports but not for volleyball,” she said. “We've been going after top talent the last couple of years and the Midwest has some phenomenal volleyball. We're not going to change where we recruit.
“We'll start at home and move out from there. Maybe having the Big East to recruit will get us in the door with some kids that maybe in the past wanted to play at a big-name school. But our recruiting base is not going to change and neither will the type of kids we recruit.”
One advantage of moving to the new league is that it expands the quantity, and the quality, of potential nonconference opponents by giving the Bluejays a chance to schedule some of their old Valley foes.
Creighton will go from playing 18 conference matches to 16, which will open a slot on the schedule. The Bluejays will fill that next season by playing in a tournament at Wichita State. Northern Iowa and Missouri State also have indicated a desire to be a part of future Creighton schedules.
“The programs that were some of our great rivalries in the Valley are interested in continuing to schedule us,” Booth said. “Fortunately, most of those schools are an easy drive that could allow us to play some midweek matches.
“And they're great teams to play. It could be a win for all of us.”
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