By Ally Conlon
Merissah Russell is taking her talents to the next level after six years of playing basketball in Ottawa.
The Capital Courts Academy graduate has made the decision to take her post-secondary studies to the University of Louisville as their first-ever Canadian basketball recruit. She will study sports administration at the university.
“Louisville was my first unofficial visit,” she said. “After seeing the campus, I looked at my mom and told her I was going there, and I didn’t need to look anywhere else.”
Jeff Waltz, the head coach of the Louisville Cardinals’ women’s basketball team, was similarly drawn to Russell and remembers feeling her appeal to his program when she visited Kentucky.
“When she came down the first time there was just a great connection,” Waltz said. “She had a great connection with our staff and with our players, I really believe she felt comfortable.”
In time, the 6’1” guard signed with Louisville.
Where Russell, her coaches and family were confident in her decision, she said people were constantly asking her if she was sure about her choice.
With the help of her parents, coach Fabienne Blizzard of Capital Courts Academy and Louisville’s Waltz, Russell was more than confident.
Blizzard was the first person to introduce Russell to high-performance basketball. When Russell was 12, Blizzard had her training on a team with boys three years senior to her.
Russell said if there is anyone who knows what’s best for her when it comes to basketball, it’s coach Blizzard.
“She believed in me so much. It’s rare you see coaches that want their players off of their team, but she was always putting my name out there and always vouched for me,” Russell said.
In discussing her decision to part with coach Blizzard and leave Ottawa to move south, Russell said it’s bittersweet. Life lessons that Blizzard has taught her will stretch far past her time playing basketball, Russell said.
For Blizzard, she’s happy to see her protégé advance to a situation fitting for her.
“I am happy because she picked the team that suits her style of play,” Blizzard said. “She is so creative she had to go to a coach that would allow her to be her.”
When recruiting, Waltz and his team were looking for girls who had enough passion for the game that matched their skill set on the court. Fortunately, he found that in Canada’s capital in Russell.
“She has a motor,” Waltz said. “When she’s on the floor I never had to question if she loved the game and that is the most important thing we are looking for as a coach.”
Ever since she was a kid, Russell has strived to be the best at anything she put her mind to. In elementary school she was a part of as many teams as she could possibly make in order to build her game and her character.
Basketball was also never the only focus on Russell’s mind. As much as the sport consumed her, so did her education.
“[The coaches] that were recruiting her didn’t realize how smart she is,” Blizzard said, who routinely makes a point of stressing Russell’s off-court brilliance in interviews. “Her academics were a priority to the point where if she wasn’t doing well in a subject, I would know by the way she practised.”
Transitioning from high school to any form of post-secondary education can be difficult, but Russell – even in her exceptional circumstances – is confident she’s capable of excelling in her challenge that’s ahead.
“I want to see the potential I have,” said Russell. “Just being in that atmosphere playing against the best of the best, with the best of the best and learning from these teachers and coaches is what I am most excited for.”