Being flexible leads OU volleyball back to national site

Greg Mast
The Ottawa Herald

The Ottawa University volleyball team is a team, not one with a few stars.

Yes, the Lady Braves sport an NAIA All-American and some consistent all-conference performers. The strength of this team is their versatility and accepting different roles at any time.

Ottawa University’s Megan Wall spikes the ball back at the William Woods defense Saturday in the four-set win.

“We have had so many changes,” Ottawa coach Melissa Blessington, who has won more than 200 matches, said. “Everybody has been really flexible. If you look at our first match, we have five completely different starters on our team. In a year with COVID-19, that makes a difference whether you are successful or not.”

Despite all the changes of roles and personnel, the on-court success continued. Ottawa won the KCAC regular-season and tournament titles. It was the ninth tourney title in program history and seventh regular-season title. Ottawa (31-7) is playing in its eighth NAIA National Tournament and sixth straight.

“It is always nice to be consistent and be a team that knows how to win in the postseason,” Blessington said.

The Lady Braves advanced to their fifth straight National Tournament Site appearance Saturday with a 3-1 (25-14, 26-24, 19-25, 25-20) win over William Woods in the first round of the NAIA Tournament at Wilson Field House.

The No. 19 Lady Braves’ pool at the national site features three ranked teams: No. 3 Westmont, California, No. 14 Grand View, Iowa and No. 19 Ottawa.

Ottawa opens its pool 8:30 a.m. April 27, against Westmont and plays Grand View at 3 p.m. The winner of the pool advances to the quarterfinal round.

“We are waiting to get our first win in Sioux City,” Blessington said. “Hopefully, it is this year. It will be historic. This is the group that can do it. We know we have the capability of beating these teams. We played seven ranked teams this year and only one was at home. We have been tested. We have worked hard. I think we are ready.”

Ottawa has beaten two ranked teams this season and has experience on the national stage. This is the fourth straight season, reaching the national site.

“We are going to be more prepared than those being there for the first time,” Blessington said. “Every year, you go into it hoping that your team understands that they don’t want to be the team that does not get to  go back.”

The flexibility of this team is off the charts. Ottawa brought in two new starters at semester in Megan Wall and Randi Johnson. Ottawa played without Ayona Tharps, a three-time all-conference and All-American in the KCAC title match and against William Woods, because of ankle injury.

“Everyday they come to practice with the understanding that they may have to come in and play,” Blessington said. “They are one of those groups where they understand they may play outside or middle. When you have a group that is consistently being able to do more than one thing that is why we are as flexible as we are.

“We have played before with our fifth-string outside hitter in there. For a couple of weeks we were missing a couple of our starting middles. We make everybody cross-train, so they are very capable of stepping in and doing different things. That is what we do. It has served us well. Hopefully, it will continue to serve us well. Our girls accept new [players] coming.

“This group knows how to play with each other and for each other.”

Breanna Vail stepped into a Tharp’s starting spot against William Woods and led Ottawa with 15 kills and four blocks.

“ Breanna Vail came in and did an amazing job,” Blessington said. “She has been a three-year starter, so she knows how to win. We have kids that have done this two, three or four years. It has been a blessing having that.”