The year before Kirsten Bernthal Booth took over at Creighton, the volleyball team played its home games at Omaha South, its record was 3-23 and its RPI was somewhere around 300.
“I was 27 when I got this job and very ripe,’’ Booth said. “I was a young pup.’’
She had a dream, though. She wanted to build a program capable of reaching the NCAA tournament.
Booth accomplished that goal in 2010 and started aiming higher.
Three years later, she’s closing in on her 200th win heading into Friday night’s showdown with Big East leader Xavier. Her current career record is 199-123. This year’s team is 12-4, has an RPI of seven and has been ranked in the top 25. Her players are growing used to winning games at the national tournament.
Just making it there no longer is enough.
“If you are satisfied with where you are, you might as well get out,’’ Booth said. “My ultimate goal is a national championship. Our next step is the sweet 16 and elite eight.”
Accomplishing those goals will be a challenge, but she says she has everything needed to reach them.
She’s been helped along the way by quality assistants, leadership from the administration and facility upgrades.
Progress wouldn’t have been made, she said, without former assistant Paul Giesselmann, now the head coach at Midland University. His experience was huge for a young coach, she said. Angie Oxley Behrens has been with her from the start, and in 2010 Booth added Tom Mendoza, who has helped take recruiting to the next level.
His efforts and the Bluejays’ growing NCAA résumé have helped Creighton draw bigger and more physical players, allowing them to match up with top teams like UCLA and Hawaii — CU lost to UCLA in four sets and to Hawaii in five this season.
“I think we’ve proven this year we can hang with those teams,’’ Booth said. “Hopefully, we can compete and perhaps knock them off. That’s the next step.”
There have been special victories on the way to 200. Upsetting Iowa State at nationals was a big moment, as was rallying from a 2-0 deficit last year at Wichita State to win the regular-season Missouri Valley title.
But those matches aren’t always the things she likes to remember. It’s the dance party on the bus a few years ago, or the team singing an Aerosmith song on video.
“I love the friendships and bonding that occurs and the relationships I build with them as people,’’ Booth said.
Booth, who turned 39 this week, says her teams are like family to her, but she also has one of her own.
She and husband, Erik, have three girls — Reese, 8; Hayden, 6; and 2-year-old Berkeley.
The girls have grown up with the team, traveling with Booth to away games since they were babies. When her husband has had a conflict, her parents, Marilyn and John Bernthal, have stepped in.
The kids sit behind the bench at games with their dad, unless the older girls are hanging out with their favorites on the women’s basketball team. They’re scampering around at practice at times, too.
“I want my players to see me as a mother,’’ Booth said. “It’s important for them to see I have my priorities. My family is No. 1.”
Booth has built her program in the shadow of the powerhouse Nebraska program down the road. Instead of viewing such competition as a negative, she sees it as a positive. Booth said she has great respect for what the NU program has done for volleyball in the state. Plus, former NU coach Terry Pettit helped open the door for her to get the job at Creighton.
Both she and NU coach John Cook think having two top Division I programs in the state is great for the sport. She hopes it becomes three with the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s recent move to Division I.
“The tradition of Nebraska volleyball is huge,’’ she said. “Creighton is great, too.’’
Booth doesn’t think about the pressure that comes along with reaching 200 victories. The bottom line is that her team is playing a game, and it’s meant to be fun. She and her staff talk to the team a lot about playing with joy.
“We’re playing a game we love, getting school paid for and I’m making a living doing it,” she said. “There’s a lot of reasons to be happy and enjoy the moment.”