Final four within reach again for Jays

Coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said making the NCAA’s final four is the goal for the Bluejays, who nearly broke through two years ago against Texas.

Hmm. Let’s see. Veteran team with talent, power and fearless nature. A hidden gem in the Midwest, looking for a way to break down the door to history and national prominence.

Sound familiar?

For veteran Creighton fans, it should.

Jim Hendry and Kirsten Bernthal Booth haven’t met. Hendry has been to a Creighton volleyball match but is too busy with the Yankees to follow the Bluejays on a regular basis.

Booth was a sophomore at Lincoln East when Hendry made history in 1991.

But as Booth’s volleyball team prepares to dive into the NCAA tournament, there are a lot of similarities between the programs and situations.

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Booth’s Jays are running out of challenges. They have won five straight Big East regular-season and tournament titles. Last year, they hosted an NCAA regional. This weekend, they do so for the second straight year.

Two years ago, they were on the doorstep to making their first final four, banging on the door at a regional final. But Texas wouldn’t let them in.

They’re back again, this time with arguably Booth’s best team. If they get past this weekend, standing in the way could be none other than Penn State and Stanford.

Hmm.

Turn back the calendar 27 years and this is Hendry, Scott Stahoviak and Mike Heathcott staring at the Road to Omaha — through the West Regional at No. 1 USC.

The roads are different, of course. In 1991, Creighton baseball had one six-team double-elimination regional to get through. The fourth-seeded Jays went 4-0, beating Pepperdine, Minnesota, USC and Hawaii to make the historic trip home.

The key win — 8-7 over USC — took everything Creighton had, including some breaks, to take down one of college baseball’s brand names on its home field.

“It was good fortune,” Hendry recalled by phone this week. “That game could have been over two or three times the other way. A double play, a bunt that went foul by an inch or two. It’s a test of mental toughness. But you need some breaks. I thought USC was the best team in the country, but not on that given Sunday.”

College baseball then, much like volleyball now, was dominated by the same group of power schools. A breakthrough meant going on the road for a school that didn’t have the conference RPI to host a regional final.

“(CWS) was something they wanted to do and never wavered for four years,” Hendry said. “Just like that volleyball team now — they’ve been so good for so long, just been knocking on that door, trying to knock all the way through it.

“Obviously, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they do it — hopefully they’ll get there this year.”

First things first: Get through the first weekend at Sokol Arena.

The Jays found out last year that home court brings no guarantees. That “first” home regional ended with a loss to sneaky strong Michigan State in the second round.

But this year already feels different for Booth and her squad. In some ways, the pressure is off.

“I do think the pressure last year felt enormous to me,” Booth said. “The weight of the world. All year, we were thinking about hosting, and we got to win every match. We really freaked out about the first-round match.

“This year, I feel probably more normal. I still have butterflies in my stomach because I love this time of year. But it is different. It’s more excitement as opposed to last year was more fear. And I hate to admit that. I just know how hard everyone worked to host.”

Pressure has been Creighton’s friend this year. The Bluejays have managed it well. They’ve won 20 straight matches since a loss to No. 8 Illinois on Sept. 15.

Twenty straight, and that’s against a Big East that they dominate. But it’s also 20 with the knowledge that any loss could have knocked them out of hosting a regional.

Booth had no problem reminding them of the situation. This group can handle the pressure. Obviously.

“Some people would say you’re putting too much pressure on them,” Booth said. “But I think it’s valuable. We’re pretty good at not dropping matches we shouldn’t. They understand how the process works.”

That goes for postseason, too. Programs on the way up have to learn how to win but also handle defeat. The loss to Michigan State could be a good teacher.

This would be a perfect Creighton team to break through, led by the program’s all-time best Jaali Winters. Booth has the program rolling. The Jays have stood with the sport’s best, taken down some big names and taken the dynasty next door, Nebraska, to five sets.

The breakthrough is coming, it’s just a question of when.

“We have fearless kids, and that can take you a long way,” Booth said. “It’s so hard. You get to that top 20 range, any team can beat any team. You have to stay injury-free, have a little bit of luck and play well.

“That’s (final four) the goal. But I don’t talk about that. We just want to keep moving forward. Hopefully one day that will happen.”

It can happen at Creighton. In fact, it did.

Sports columnist

Tom is The World-Herald's lead sports columnist. Since he started in Omaha in 1991, he's covered just about anything you can imagine. Follow him on Twitter @TomShatelOWH. Phone: 402-444-1025.

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