An already thriving athletic program at Ottawa University just added a new element.

Starting this spring, OU will compete in women’s beach volleyball, bringing the total athletic programs at the university to 28, including three volleyball programs (women’s indoor, women’s beach and men’s indoor). The announcement was made Monday by Arabie Conner, OU director of athletics, who said in a news release that “it was a perfect time to add what is a very popular sport for women to our line up.”

The team is prepped and ready to go, Melissa Blessington, OU head volleyball coach, said, with uniforms already ordered and on their way, and a preliminary 10-match schedule set up and ready to be finalized. The schedule has Ottawa traveling to Texas A&M University-Kingsville March 17-18 in Kingsville, Texas for its first match. That roughly 11-hour trip will be the furthest on the schedule, Blessington, who will serve as the head coach for the beach volleyball team, said.

“It is not, obviously, right in our back yard,” she said. “But all of our other matches are three-and-a-half to four hours away. It is actually a pretty awesome schedule for putting it together that fast.

“The schedule was done immediately. A lot of schools want to play us. It wasn’t like something where we had to search really hard for games.”

Current Brave volleyball players are eligible to play on the sand volleyball team, including the likes of Adrianna Skipper, a senior setter this past fall for the Braves women’s volleyball team who earned an NAIA honorable mention All-American nod. Players are eligible to play any sport under NAIA standards, Blessington noted, and Skipper will have two years of eligibility (including this spring season) to play beach volleyball.

In collegiate beach volleyball, the set up is similar to that of tennis where two teams face off head-to-head with six pairs of players each. The No. 1 pairs from each team plays each other, the No. 2 pairs from each team plays each other and so on through the No. 6 pairs. Each game counts as a point to the overall match score, with the winning team being the one that wins the best out of six games, Blessington said.

Unlike indoor volleyball, beach volleyball only has two players playing per team at a time. The coaching staff will choose the 12 players they want to represent OU beach volleyball for a match, but do not have to send the same players to every match, Blessington said, allowing for more players to get a chance to play throughout the season.

“It is a great way to train. There are only two people on the court, so they have to work together,” Blessington said. “The coaches aren’t allowed to coach during rallies. They can only coach during timeouts and switching sides. It is a lot more of the players having to take responsibility for how they are personally playing.

“They have to rely on each other and you don’t get to have a bad game because if you do your partner is out there by themselves. We just thought it would be a great way to inter-mix our kids and get them to do some stuff that isn’t all indoors. It gives us something to look forward too for the spring season, which isn’t always the most exciting [for volleyball].”

Tom Sorensen, Daniel Joens, Meshach McKnight and Henry Claytor will assist Blessington with coaching, and Ottawa will practice at Volleyball Beach in Kansas City, Missouri, the release said.

Excitement surrounds the volleyball program, which is strengthened by both training current players and the potential to recruit new ones for the spring season.

“It gives us an edge because we can recruit a little bit more in California because sand is big out there,” Blessington said. “It gives us another layer of putting our name out there a little bit more because we will compete against schools like Central Arkansas and potentially the University of Nebraska.

“A lot of [the players] were really excited. For [players] especially like Adrianna Skipper, it gives her another opportunity to play when she thought her career was done. A couple where a little apprehensive because sand volleyball relies heavily on you being able to do the full spectrum of the sport. Some were like, ‘Well, will I be able to do it?’ And I said, ‘Yes, you’ll get better at everything.’ This should really help us be better all-around volleyball players.”

Beach volleyball is best known for its professional tours and status as an Olympic sport since 1996, but has been rapidly growing at the collegiate level, the release said. There are a total of 97 schools with beach volleyball entering the 2017-18 season — NCAA I (54), NCAA II (11), NCAA III (3) and the California Community College Athletic Association (23). OU will be the seventh NAIA school to add beach volleyball, joining Benedictine University – Mesa, Arizona; Missouri Baptist University; Keiser University, Florida; Warner University, Florida; Webber International University, Florida; and Vanguard University, California. Beach volleyball is the fastest growing NCAA sport over the last five years and USA Volleyball saw a 450 percent increase in participation in their female U12-U18 programming, according to AVCA.org.