When Kirsten Bernthal Booth took over the Creighton women’s program 14 years ago, she had one major goal in mind — get her team to the NCAA Tournament. She was a long way from becoming the 2016 VolleyballMag.com national coach of the year.
Creighton finally got there in 2010 and since then the Bluejays have made it a habit of going to the big dance, with NCAA appearances in six of the last seven seasons, punctuated by this year’s run to the regional final where it lost to Texas.
But Bernthal Booth, who took over a program that went 3-22 the year before she arrived in Omaha, Neb., admits she was a bit uneasy about her team’s prospects after a rocky non-conference start to the 2016 season.
“We were 0-3 in fifth sets during non-con and we lost two of those three very badly,” she recalled. “We seemed passive and scared. I remember telling the staff at that point I didn’t know how good we were going to be if we couldn’t handle the pressure and play when it counts.”
Bernthal Booth’s charges became quick studies in the art of winning, going on a run that included Big East Conference regular-season and tournament titles for a third year in a row, as well as a 3-1 run in the NCAAs, with all three victories coming in five.
Creighton beat Northern Iowa and then fifth-seeded Kansas and No. 12 Michigan before getting swept by Texas. Creighton finished No. 9 in the final AVCA coaches poll, the program’s highest ever.
“It was fun seeing them learn how to win,” said Bernthal Booth, 291-153 after a 29-7 mark this season.
“During non-con, I felt like we didn’t know how to win. We got on that run in the Big East and we figured things out. We figured out how to play with our backs against the wall. We had a great group here that was committed since we started strength and conditioning back in January.”
But ask Creighton players their opinion of Bernthal Booth as a coach and Xs and Os rank far down the list.
“She’s authentic on and off the court,” senior middle blocker Lauren Smith says. “She’s a real role model that I looked up to. Being able to build the type of close relationships she has with her players is rare in Division I volleyball. I’m beyond grateful for the work she’s put in and how willing she is to go the extra mile for the players. For her it’s about you and your life and how you leave here a better person. She’s exemplary in all facets of her life.”
Creighton sophomore outside-right side Jaali Winters was sold on Bernthal Booth since her recruiting process began in her hometown of Ankeny, Iowa.
“It’s so easy to see how authentic and genuine she is,” Winters said. “The way she talks to us, I wish every girl could hear that. She’s so inspiring and so empowering. She cares about us more as people than players.”
Winters is a particular fan of Bernthal Booth’s lunch-and-learn sessions during the preseason where the coach brings in female guest speakers to talk to the team.
“One lady from the Air Force, for lack of better words, was a bad-ass,” Winters said. “She had been through some crazy life-and-death situations and came out on top every time. It was great to hear her life experiences. Those lunch-and-learns allowed us to learn from strong women.”
Smith said because of Bernthal Booth and Creighton, “I couldn’t ask for a better place to finish growing up,” she said.
Bernthal Booth, who was was a state-champion high-school tennis player growing up in Lincoln, Neb., was a standout setter at Truman State in Missouri.
She says the secret ingredients to the sustained success she’s had at Creighton include being able to pitch many superlatives about the university to recruits as well as having good continuity on her coaching staff. Assistant Angie Oxley Behrens has been with Bernthal Booth since the beginning in Omaha.
“I would send my kids to Creighton. I believe in the experience,” Bernthal Booth said. “I’ve also had a great staff all the way through. Angie has been great. What we’ve been able to do is build a culture with great players and a great strength.
“The one thing Angie and I have been most proud of is we’ve been able to continue to take steps each year. We’re not a one-hit wonder. Our goal has been to keep building on the foundation and have the players enjoy the experience here. We’re building young women and we’re building relationships. It’s process-driven. I treat them as I would want my daughters to be treated.”
Creighton Since 2010
2010: 21-12 (NCAA tournament)
2012: 29-4 (NCAA tournament)
2013: 23-9 (NCAA tournament)
2014: 25-9 (NCAA tournament)
2015: 27-9 (NCAA regional semifinalist)
2016: 29-7 (NCAA region finalist)