Big East powerhouse Creighton is headed into a season of transition.
Roster changes, hopefully the return of a top player, a longtime assistant has moved on, but there will still be plenty of talent in Omaha.
“I think every year is a year of transition as far as the players go,” 20th-year Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said. “There are always new players coming in. Players graduate, players leave.”
You can start with who’s back, and that includes VolleyballMag.com national freshman of the year Norah Sis. Sis, the 6-foot-1 outside hitter from nearby Paillion-La Vista High School, was also a VBM third-team All-American after leading the Bluejays in kills with 435 (3.75/set). She was third on the team in digs at 2.96/set and had 70 blocks and 19 aces.
The other jewel of that freshman class was setter Kendra Wait, a 5-10 product of Gardner, Kansas, who was a VBM honorable-mention All-American. She led the Big East in assists, averaging 10.46/set and had 21 aces and 99 blocks.
“The fun thing about Norah and Kendra is they’re really good, but the list of things they can get better at is really good, too, and they get that,” Booth said. “They’re both so easy to coach.
“Norah physically is really talented, probably more talented that we realized. You know, she was on the same team forever with (Nebraska star) Lindsay Krause and Lindsay is so physical that sometimes Norah’s physicality was missed by a lot of us. I knew she’d come in and be good. I don’t know if I knew how good.”
Booth said Sis — who can do a standing back flip and was a two-time Nebraska prep high-jump champion — is impressive in the weight room and with movement skills.
“She was a high jump state champion, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. But the other thing, again, as I coach longer, you know that you can have talented athletes, but if they don’t have the head for it they’re never going to be great. The thing that I really love about that freshman class (now sophomores) is they have the heads to be great, which is exciting.”
For the record, Wait won the Kansas Class 6A state titles in the 100 (12.02 seconds), shot put (42 feet, 2.5 inches), long jump (18-5) and pole vault (11-0) in a three-hour span on the same day.
Another key player is back — sort of.
Jaela Zimmerman, who was second on the team in kills with 376 (3.69/set) and digs (3.22/set). But the 6-1 outside hitter from Lincoln, Nebraska, also a VBM honorable-mention All-American, went down with a serious knee injury in Creigton’s sweep last December of Ole Miss in first round of the NCAA Tournament. She had 10 kills in the first two sets before getting hurt and was clearly missed when the Bluejays lost to Kansas the next night.
Zimmerman had ACL surgery in January and is still rehabbing, hoping to get back on the court sometime this season.
“She’s our leader,” Booth said. “She would add to our gym even if she’s not on the court. She’s that good of a young women. I’m excited to have her leadership to guide what I think will be a pretty good team.”
The other outside hitter will likely be either Keeley Davis, a senior from Highlands Ranch, Colorado, who had 202 kills last year (1.79/set); Ava Martin, a freshman from Overland Park, Kansas; or Incarnate Word transfer Bethany Clapp, a senior from Corpus Christi, Texas.
The middles could be all-Wisconsin in sophomore Kiara Reinhardt, a sophomore from Cedarburg, and Kiana Schmitt, a senior from Waunakee who had 146 kills last season and 75 blocks.
Jazz Schmidt will be in the right-side/setter mix. The 6-2 senior from Colorado, is a transfer from Palm Beach Atlantic, Booth said, adding, “she’s a really good kid and I’m stoked about her addition.”
Also in the playing-time mix are junior defensive specialist, Ellie Bolton, who had 139 digs last season; freshmen DS Sky McCune, middle Ann Marie Remmes, Allison Whitten, a senior DS transfer from Morehead State, and junior Megan Skovsende, who is from Omaha.
Creighton lost four players from a team that finished 31-4, 16-2 in the Big East, including graduated middles Naomi Hickman (141 kills, team-high 130 blocks) and Annika Welty (175 kills, 109 blocks). Abby Bottomley played a season at libero as a grad student after transferring from High Point and led with 553 digs (4.85/set). And coincidentally, setter Ally Van Eekeren transferred to High Point, where she is now a senior.
The Bluejays have been to 10 consecutive NCAA Tournaments and a big key to Creighton’s success the past four seasons was assistant coach Craig Dyer, who is now the associate head coach for new Notre Dame coach Salima Rockwell.
“I’m stoked for Craig and excited for his new opportunity at Notre Dame,” Booth said.
In his place Booth hired Brian Rosen, who was the head coach at Nova Southeastern the past three years.
“Change is always hard, but it’s also awesome,” Booth said.
Rosen joins the rock of the staff, Angie Oxley Behrens, who has been at Creighton for all of the two decades with Booth.
Creighton opens its season August 26 at Wyoming where that weekend the Bluejays will play Iowa State, Wichita State and Wyoming.
Then they are the host for one of the showcase presason weekends when USC, Kentucky, and Northern Iowa all face each other in Sokol Arena.
There’s also the biggest annual non-conference match of the year September 7 when Creighton plays Nebraska in Omaha’s CHI Health Center, the site of December’s NCAA Championship. Last year that match drew 11,279 fans.