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Lauren Smith's collegiate career is winding down, but don't tell her that.

The Lincoln Pius X graduate has enjoyed five successful years in the Creighton volleyball program. One more ride remains — the NCAA Tournament — but time to reminisce is on hold.

"I don't think I'm going to believe it until the very end," Smith said. "Honestly, I've been trying not to worry about it, because I want to make every moment count."

Smith is one of two Lincoln natives on the Creighton roster, and both occupy the middle for a Bluejay team currently on a 20-match winning streak. The other is junior and Lincoln Southwest graduate Marysa Wilkinson.

Together, they have combined to hit .371 with 149 blocks in Creighton's last 23 matches, and both were named to the All-Big East second team.

No. 21 Creighton, making its sixth NCAA Tournament appearance in seven seasons, will open against former Missouri Valley Conference rival Northern Iowa at 4 p.m. Thursday in the Lawrence (Kansas) Regional. The winner likely will play No. 4 Kansas in Friday's second round.

The Bluejays advanced to their first Sweet 16 a season ago. Now they're looking to make another run.

"I think our chemistry and the way we are together is going to help us through everything," Wilkinson said. "There's lots of experience on this team, too, so that will help."

Wilkinson is first on the team in blocks (89) and third in kills (265). Smith is second in blocks (85) and fourth in kills (247).

The two have known each other since high school and played together for the Nebraska Juniors club team.

"It's always great to have her as a teammate now," Wilkinson said. "She's always there for me, always looking out."

Wilkinson played primarily right-side hitter during her freshman season. But Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth — a Lincoln East graduate — moved Wilkinson to middle blocker early her sophomore season, and the move played a key role in the Jays finishing the season on a 26-5 run.

Wilkinson said moving to the middle was not hard. She played the position three years in high school, and practiced at the spot early on at Creighton, too.

Smith, meanwhile, is a four-year starter at middle blocker. Her 493 sets played and 133 career starts are school records, and Thursday's match against Northern Iowa will mark Smith's 121st straight start. She is the team's active leader in career kills and career blocks, and is one of 10 finalists — joining Nebraska's Kadie Rolfzen — for the Senior CLASS Award.

"(I'm) really appreciating every moment on the court and with these girls," said Smith, who redshirted her first season following an elbow injury. "It's been really special. This group and this team dynamic we have here is something I can't even explain."

Creighton (26-6) lost to Nebraska in four sets Sept. 17 at the Devaney Sports Center. The Bluejays haven't lost since. They won Big East regular-season and tournament titles and did so following a simple approach.

"We worked really hard during practices, that's a big key," Wilkinson said. "And we always make sure we are eating right, sleeping right, all the little things that have helped us gotten to where we are now."

Said Smith, "I think it really shows how mentally tough this team is, to come out every night, it doesn't matter who's on the other side." 

The Bluejays also are familiar with two teams in Lawrence this week. Creighton swept Northern Iowa on Sept. 2, and lost to Kansas in five sets Sept. 8.

Playing in Lawrence means Wilkinson and Smith will be playing in front of family and friends. The trip from Lincoln is about three hours.

Wilkinson and Smith also haven't forgotten their roots.

"Playing for Nebraska Juniors, it has helped us so much," Wilkinson said. "We know we wouldn't be where we are right now without all the people that helped us in Lincoln. We always have great pride in that."

Reach the writer at 402-473-2639 or cgrell@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsCG.

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Sports editor

Clark Grell is sports editor.

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