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Omaha Magazine

Leading A Nebraska Volleyball Renaissance

Aug 22, 2023 02:54PM ● By Chris Hatch
Kirsten Bernthal Booth’s Bluejays are Creating Their Own Masterpiece

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

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When the letter “s” is affixed to the word “decade” in one’s work bio, it may be hard for some to keep things fresh—to stay hungry. Not so for Creighton University’s women’s volleyball coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth, owner of multiple records, and now, multiple decades at the helm of the increasingly potent Bluejays program.

“If I had to say 20 years ago, ‘Are you pleased with where you’ve been, and where you’ve taken the program?’ to myself now, I’d be pretty stoked,” Bernthal Booth said, now in her 20th year as a Creighton head coach. “I want to go further. I love the student athletes. I just want to impact lives.”

Her rise to become three-time National Coach of the Year and an in-state powerhouse wasn’t preordained. In fact, she almost found herself doing an entirely different kind of volley.

Growing up, in Lincoln, Nebraska, it certainly seemed she was on nearly every court but the one she has come to dominate from the Omaha sidelines.

“I was a swimmer, did tennis, and basketball. I was kind of in everything,” she said, laughing at the glaring omission from her youth sports resume. “In 7th grade, one of my friends gave me a flier for the Lincoln Juniors, the top club in Lincoln at that time. And I’ll never forget, she said to me, ‘I don’t want to [play for them], but you might.’” 

Bernthal Booth took the flier home, convinced her parents that she could fundraise the $40 team fee, and began her volleyball career. She quickly excelled in the team sport, but eventually her skills on the other court with a net led her to a major athletic crossroads.

After nearly accepting a walk-on spot at Nebraska as a tennis player, she made her choice and set her sites on setting.

Leaving behind the solo act on the tennis courts of Lincoln, Bernthal Booth headed to college and quickly made the most of connecting with her teammates between the lines—where the student-athlete broke the Truman State U all-time assists mark as a setter—and off the court, where she graduated with honors and even served as a student senator.

While coaching may have seemed like a natural fit for a relationships-first, high-IQ volleyball player, it wasn’t initially on Bernthal Booth’s radar. With a father in administration at the University of Nebraska, she envisioned herself as a career academic, but found herself drifting back into coaching while getting her master’s degree at the University of Iowa, where she volunteered with their volleyball program.

Her first head coaching gig followed soon after, landing the position at Kirkwood Community College. After going a combined 112-41 and securing District Coach of the Year honors twice, she put herself in the running for the head coaching position at Creighton University.

That’s when she received a recommendation to the administration at Creighton—from bonafied Nebraska volleyball royalty, no less.

“Terry Petit is a mentor of mine. His daughter was a freshman when I was a senior at Lincoln East [High School]. I didn’t know her until she came in, but I just liked her,” Bernthal Booth recalled. “As Terry would say, I took her under my wing and helped her. When the Creighton position opened, [CU Athletic Director] Bruce Rasmussen essentially hired Coach Petit to give names to them for their search. Fortunately, I was a name that he passed along.”

Her kindness repaid, her track record impeccable, Bernthal Booth arrived at Creighton in her home state with her work cut out for her.

“The program prior to my arrival was playing at a high school,” she said, referring to the team’s ‘home gym’ at Omaha South. “So you can imagine how difficult that was to recruit. I was 27, and when I say I was clueless, the people around would verify that. I hired Angie (Oxley) Behrens, who had just gotten done winning a national championship (under Petit at Nebraska) a year prior and she gave us some real credibility.”

“As a player at Nebraska, I loved my experience,” said Oxley Behrens, who’s been an assistant on Bernthal Booth’s staff for 20 years. “But, it felt like it was more business, more about wins and losses. Kirsten has instilled in me that you can do both. You can care about winning and losing and care about the player as a person.”

As she has developed from the fresh-faced, rookie coach at the high school gymnasium into the 20-year veteran and leader of a Big East powerhouse in a nationally acclaimed facility (CHI Health Center Arena), Bernthal Booth has watched the game grow to match her home-state efforts.

“You really have to tip your cap to what Terry Petit did at Nebraska,” she said. “He went out at a grassroots level to grow the sport. He was out there training coaches. What that has led to is phenomenal high school coaches, phenomenal club coaches, from small schools to big schools. I really credit Nebraska volleyball for that. Volleyball is well supported here; all the college and high school teams, it’s remarkable. Nebraska kids and fans may take that for granted, but it’s not that way around most of the country.”

The local ties, the ability to grow along with the game, and the hunger to keep innovating and developing, are all ways Bernthal Booth has kept stagnation at bay. But above all, it’s her belief in the people around her that has sustained her excellence at Creighton.

“Kirsten does a fantastic job of building relationships. With her peers, but also with her players,” Behrens noted. “She feels that each and every one of the players is comfortable to talk volleyball or talk life. 

“You don’t usually see a lot of players who want to come to a coach’s office, but it’s amazing when she builds confidence and trust.” 

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This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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