OU volleyball program blessed with good players, special people

Greg Mast
The Ottawa Herald

The Ottawa University women’s volleyball program flourishes for many reasons.

Ottawa women’s coach Melissa Blessington has been blessed with good volleyball players and staff members throughout her eight-year tenure.

Ottawa senior hitter Ayana Tharps left a legacy for the Lady Braves. She is a two-time All-American and led Ottawa to nationals in each of her seasons.

This past group of players and coaches have been special to her and the program, especially the seniors.

Ottawa’s season came to an end Saturday with a 3-1 loss to Lindsay Wilson in the NAIA National Tournament Opening Round in Wilson Field House.

“Any time the season ends it is always tough,” Blessington said. “Especially with this group. We had some come back for their fifth year. We have had some for four years. They mean a lot to our program.”

The coach said those returning for a fifth year were special in many ways.

“Ayana Tharps transferred in,” Blessington said. ‘I knew I was getting a good athlete. I did not know I was getting an amazing volleyball player. We are very, very blessed she decided to come back. Ryleigh Burdick coming back another year was also a joy. Emily [Jackson] was on the fence. It was great to have her come in and lead our back row. Randi [Johnson], even though she transferred in at semester [in January], was somebody that really made a big impact. Those [players] are going to be missed.

“When you have girls stick around when they don’t have to, it means they love our program. Our girls love each other. You have to when you have literally played a match in every month in 2021 except for June and July. It is a hard year to turnaround after having just a couple of months off. You have a target on your back of being the conference champion the year before. They worked extremely hard. We had a lot of injuries.”

The Lady Braves played in their seventh straight NAIA National Tournament. Ottawa has won 10 conference titles and eight regular season championships.

“Any time you can make it to a conference championship, it is crazy,” Blessington said. “The fact that we have done that eight years in a row, nationals seven years in a row, it is a testament, not only to what our players did, but what our staff did. I have an amazing staff.

“Adrianna Skipper has been here six seasons. Makena Wilson in her second season. Kenna Hall has also been with us for six years. It is definitely a great experience having players that played for you, coach with you.

“Any time you can have people that were great players here come on your staff and help coach, it speaks volumes about what they love about this place. The reason they come back is because of what we have built over the years. They are proud of that. That level of pride to have in your program will always make things better long term.”

Blessington said she has been blessed to coach not only good athletes, but amazing people.

“We have amazing kids,” she said. “Ava Taton is one of the best humans I have ever coached. She is just a gem. She is a 4.0 kid. She does everything right. She does everything you ask of her. You don’t get a lot of Ava Taton’s in this world. She is somebody that is a glue kid. There is no stat for that.

“Ryleigh Burdick has played two straight seasons with injuries. You can see somebody that loves volleyball. You can’t ask for better kids than that. We are very lucky to have kids we have that come to Ottawa. I am very lucky to coach those type of of kids.”