After an underwhelming start to a season in which she figured to be the Michigan volleyball team’s top offensive weapon, Paige Jones put a dent in any notion of a sophomore slump on Friday night.
In her best performance of the young season, the sophomore outside hitter posted 12 kills on 29 swings to propel the 24th-ranked Wolverines to a sweep of Navy (4-4).
Despite a lackluster .152 hitting percentage — a 43-point dropoff from last season’s clip — Michigan (6-2) continued to rely on Jones to carry a large portion of the offense through its first seven matches. She entered Friday with more attack attempts than any other Wolverine except senior outside hitter Sydney Wetterstrom.
Coming off an appearance on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team in 2018, little stood in Jones’ way of becoming one of the conference’s best pin hitters. That is, aside from herself.
Through Michigan’s first six matches of the season, Jones committed a team-high 29 errors and recorded a hitting percentage above .250 only once. Talent has never been a question with Jones — the Ohio high school state record holder for kills in a single match and season — but errors have cost her a chance at dominance.
While it’s already tough for an outside hitter to produce when they’re at the top of every opposing scouting report, self-inflicted errors are costly. Freshmen in particular often find themselves prone to mistakes, and Jones was no different a season ago when she averaged over 1.5 attack errors per set. This season’s figure was hovering around a similar mark before she made just two errors on Friday while posting a season-best .345 hitting percentage.
Wolverines’ coach Mark Rosen subbed her out in favor of sophomore Abbey Malinowski after just six points, citing Jones’ diversion from the game plan. Jones didn’t sit on the bench for long, and she made her presence felt upon returning. She tallied a team-best four kills on seven errorless swings even after stumbling out of the gate.
“When (Jones) went back in, she really dialed it in,” Rosen said. “That’s a great skill. We’re not always going to have our best night on any given night but the ability to in-match alter where you’re at and get it under control, Paige has done that numerous times. Give her a breather, (then) she comes back in and does a really nice job.”
Two of her four kills came at key moments late in the frame, breaking a tie at 18 and giving Michigan a three-point lead at 22-19. Her timely front row execution wasn’t the only place she left her mark, though, as her serve kept Navy out of system for most of the match. Jones is the team’s only starter with a jump serve — a technique used to add power and height to the move by using a leaping approach to strike the ball.
Her 12-to-14 ace-to-error ratio is a big step forward from her 39-to-70 mark as a freshman and, so far, has made the difference in some tight sets.
“I’m trying right now to just tell myself to go out and have fun and play,” Jones said on Sunday after recording 15 kills in a sweep of Eastern Michigan. “When I think about stuff too much is when I struggle a little bit, but my teammates definitely help me and help me feel more comfortable on the court to be able to go out and play volleyball and have fun.”
Emerging when her team needs her most is something Jones is working to embrace now that she has a year of experience under her belt. She was the team’s lone freshman in the starting lineup last season — an opportunity that allowed her to learn on the fly as the season progressed.
But for Jones, such experience brings the added pressure of knowing nothing is new anymore.
“She has really high expectations for herself,” Rosen said. “She’s a perfectionist, as most of our players are. She puts a lot of pressure on herself, has a lot of expectations and sometimes needs to be able to take a step back. My advice I have for her is to just play the game. … As she gets more comfortable doing that, we’re going to see some really great things from her.”
Jones put forth her season-best performance in kills-per-set, attack efficiency and blocking in Friday’s sweep. Now, it becomes a matter of making such a performance the status quo.
“She can be really, really good,” Rosen said. “… I think she can do that on a regular basis and certainly that’s our expectation, but we’ve got to get her there.”