When No. 3 Minnesota rolled into Crisler Center on Saturday night, everyone in the arena knew it would be an uphill battle. Without starting setter Mackenzi Welsh, outside hitter Sydney Wetterstrom, middle back Cori Crocker and an entirely new formation? An even steeper hill to climb.
What the audience might not have seen coming, however, was freshman Paige Jones’ 18-kill performance at a .349 clip while almost single-handedly winning the first set for the No. 12 Michigan volleyball team.
With junior outside hitter Carly Skjodt playing through a sprained ankle after posting a 27-kill double-double the night before, Jones knew she had to step up at the other outside hitter position if the Wolverines (18-5 overall, 7-5 Big Ten) were going to have any chance at knocking off the Big Ten-leading Golden Gophers (18-2, 12-0).
“I was ready to embrace (the bigger role),” Jones said. “I know my teammates trust me, and I trust them. So I just go (into) every game hoping I can do what they need me to do.
“We knew we had to bounce back pretty quick and prepare for this match, and before the game, (Michigan coach Mark Rosen) just told us to come out and swing at the ball. Go for every ball. Don’t hold back and good things will happen.”
With an ailing roster, Rosen was impressed with how the freshman showed up under the lights in front of a large Crisler crowd.
“(Jones) has been working really hard to raise her level and raise her game,” Rosen said. “It’s been tough in this conference to play back-to-back nights and have good nights. I thought, you know, last night she played great, and she came out tonight and played great offensively as well so that was a big step for her as an individual.
“When you have a change or somebody goes down, you want somebody else to step up, and I thought she really stepped up tonight and did a great job. I think it’s a good step in her progression and that’s what we’re looking for, to keep getting better every day. And I thought (Jones) got better today.”
Though the freshman played a near-flawless set, one of her few mistakes catalyzed a Minnesota run that carried throughout the rest of the set. After dropping two set points, the Wolverines were tied at 25-25 when Jones failed to return a relatively routine serve, giving Minnesota the point it needed to steal the set.
“Personally, my passing wasn’t as good at the end of that set,” Jones said. “I could have let that ball go out of bounds. I could not get aced. I mean, there’s just something I personally could have controlled and that my team knows that I can do and I just didn’t do it.
“Minnesota’s a good team so they’re going to emphasize when somebody does that.”
After another stellar outing in an otherwise disappointing result, Jones hopes to continue her successful freshman campaign as Michigan figures out a way to get over the hump of beating higher-ranked teams.