The Ottawa University volleyball team learned to be flexible. Injuries forced several players to play unfamiliar positions.
Ottawa coach Melissa Blessington and her assistants kept the ship afloat and until they could mold a tough-minded group.
“We definitely had to be resilient,” Blessington said. “It has not been a normal year where we are pretty consistent. There has been some ups and downs.”
The coach said the players were open to learning new positions.
“They are willing to learn what they don’t know,” Blessington said. “It is different when you play a different position.”
What has stayed the same was the program’s success. Ottawa qualified for its seventh NAIA National Tournament berth in eight years by winning the KCAC Tournament this past weekend. Ottawa (24-13) plays at noon Saturday at home against Brescia University (27-7) in a first-round match. It is the fourth time in five years Ottawa has played host to a first-round match. Ottawa is 3-3 in the previous NAIA first-round matches, advancing to the national site in 2015, 2017 and 2018.
Blessington said this team grew into a tight-knit group.
“On and off the court, they have learned to understand each other,” Blessington said. “We have (players) from all over the country. This is a very diverse (team). On our varsity roster, we have five or six kids from the Kansas City area. The rest are from everywhere else. It is cool to see how they get along with each other. I have a great group of (girls).”
The injuries started before the season with Brogan Collins hurting her knee, which forced Caitlin Cox to move to the middle.
“It was a very foreign position for her,” Blessington said. “Her stepping in and really owning that position is a big reason why we have done so well. She is a phenomenal blocker. We also had some issues with our liberos where we had one that broke an arm. We have had three different liberos this year. That is something we spent time working with those (players) learning to play those positions.”
Blessington said many players were not playing their natural positions. Makayla Aspegren moved from outside hitter to the middle. Brooke Fearka returned to action this weekend after an recovering from an injury. She moved from setter to a defensive specialist.
“She was phenomenal this past weekend in the conference tournament,” Blessington said. “Emily Jackson was somebody that was hurt literally up to a week ago. Bringing Autumn Freeman back helped us tremendously.”
Through all the changes, the Lady Braves never wavered in attempting to play at a high level. Ottawa played several close matches throughout the season, winning seven of 11 five-set matches.
“Our team understands a little bit differently that — we may not be the most talented — they are the fiercest group of girls that want to (be successful),” Blessington said. “They are the best unit together. They are going to battle. The mental toughness part comes with them competing in practice and pushing each other in practice. There is a lot of games this year we would like to get back where we lost. We’ve grown exponentially from the first match to right now.”
Ottawa displayed that fight in rallying from an 0-2 hole to defeat Friends in five sets in the KCAC quarterfinals. The coach said playing 12 ranked teams this season helped the team mature.
“We got our butts kicked by some of those teams,” Blessington said. “For us to learn from that and do better was a big deal. Anytime you do that, you will see where your weaknesses are. It is always better than playing an easy schedule.”