Bold and powerful sophomore Jaali Winters at the heart of Creighton's giant-killing ways
On one hand, Creighton sophomore Jaali Winters understands why this is a big deal. The Bluejays, who had never been to volleyball's NCAA Sweet 16 before last year, now have advanced that far two seasons in a row.
But on the other hand ... well, isn't this what's supposed to happen? Winters doesn't lack for confidence, and she wears it well. She expects to win big matches. That's part of why she came to Creighton, even if there were plenty of "big" schools that were interested.
She felt like this was the right place for her. And perhaps it's a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it's turned out that way.
"I really cannot remember a time when I didn't have this mindset," Winters said after she got 23 kills and 14 digs in the Bluejays' NCAA second-round upset of No. 5 seed Kansas last Friday. "From a young age, I was told that confidence was the key to everything. We've all heard the saying, 'Believe, and you're halfway there.' When the pressure is on, you have to just get down to business and do it."
Creighton is one of two teams from non-BCS schools to make the Sweet 16, and they're both in the same regional in Austin, Texas. The Bluejays will meet No. 12 seed Michigan Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET Friday (ESPN3), after host Texas, the No. 4 seed, plays No. 13 seed BYU (5 p.m. ET ESPNU).
The Bluejays won the Big East regular-season title at 18-0, then swept both their matches to win the conference tournament. BYU was champion of the West Coast Conference, and is an inspiration to other mid-major programs, having made the national championship match in 2014, where the Cougars fell to Penn State.
"It's important for the mid-majors to get some of the great talent," Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said. "Fortunately, there are a lot of talented volleyball players in the Midwest.
"We can beat some BCS schools in recruiting sometimes, but we can also develop talent. If we can identify those kids who are wired the way Jaali is wired, that's what we want in our gym."
How did the Bluejays land Winters, a 6-foot-3 outside hitter from Ankeny, Iowa? Booth said that Winters' family liked Creighton, which is in Omaha, Nebraska, about 144 miles west of Ankeny. (Incidentally, Jaali's father, James Winters, played basketball at Iowa in the 1990s. There, he was roommates with Chris Street, an immortalized Hawkeyes standout who was killed in a car accident in 1993.)
Booth also sensed a strong connection quickly developed between Winters and the Bluejays players whom she met on her recruiting visit. But ultimately ...
"I'm really not sure how we got her," Booth said with a smile. "But we certainly are thankful she came here."
When the pressure is on, you have to just get down to business and do it.Jaali Winters
Winters said that Creighton, which has a total enrollment of a little over 8,000, was the smallest of the schools she visited. Her uncle, Adam Reid, had played basketball there, and he and others told her that she would "get a feeling" about what the right school would be.
"I thought that was just ridiculous," Winters said. "I'm not one to have a lot of emotions; I'm a very logical person. But they told me, 'You're going to know,' and I did."
Winters had a stellar freshman season, leading Creighton with 546 kills (a 4.07 per set average) and earning third-team AVCA all-America honors. She had 21 kills in the breakthrough 3-1 second-round win at North Carolina. Then, in the Bluejays' final match of 2015, a 3-1 loss to top-seeded USC in the regional semifinals, Winters had 12 kills and nine errors.
"Jaali is highly competitive," Booth said, "She didn't talk for about 48 hours after that loss, she was so upset about it. This is a kid that wants the ball at the end of the game, and steps up and goes for it. It doesn't always happen, but a good percent of the time, she's going to get it done."
Winters is again the Bluejays' kills leader this season; her 393 total and 3.54 per-set average reflect that Creighton has a bit more balance. Winters was an all-Big East first-team pick, along with fellow sophomore hitter Taryn Kloth and junior setter Lydia Dimke, a transfer from Purdue who was the league's player of the year.
Booth was the Big East coach of the year, and is in her 14th season with the Bluejays. Creighton had a volleyball program prior to the NCAA era, but ended it in 1980. The school brought the sport back in 1994, reflecting what was happening in the state.
"Nebraska volleyball built Creighton volleyball," Booth, a Lincoln, Nebraska, native, said of the Huskers' program. "I mean that in the sense that when Terry Pettit was the Nebraska coach and that program emerged in the 1980s and '90s, our high schools really developed. The high school coaches and club coaches improved a lot, and now volleyball is the premiere sport for girls in our state."
That's all a bit of ancient history for the Iowan Winters, who might say that's not her best subject. Winters is known for her short memory, which Booth said is a big plus. Winters doesn't dwell on plays, good or bad, and is always ready for what's next.
"That's what the great ones do: They can move on," Booth said. "And we didn't train that. She arrived that way. She prepares every day, and she's consistent. You want players like that on your team."