Last year, matchups with Colorado State ended in two losses for Michigan — one of which season-ending. This year, however, the Wolverines seemed to flip a new page.
Despite all the talk about about revenge and redemption against the Rams, the difference maker for Michigan was the one person that thought none of that — freshman Paige Jones just wanted to win.
Coming into the game, the outside hitter knew nothing of the small rivalry. Though, to be fair, she barely even knew that the Wolverines played Colorado State last year. But what she did know was how much her teammates wanted the game, and she delivered accordingly.
In a career night, Jones stunned the arena with a personal-best 18 kills on .500 hitting percentage and seven service aces. Though her services have always come as a problem to opponents, they don’t come without drawbacks for Michigan. The jump topspin serve that she does is a high risk, high reward serve, but on Saturday night, Jones reaped all of the reward and little of the risk.
“(Jones) has been trying to find a rhythm with that,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “It’s a high-risk serve, and if you don’t hit it just right, then it takes off on you. And you look kinda silly, like ‘Hey, I just missed that by a lot.’ But you just missed a little bit on your hand.
“… Her contact was really good, and I thought she got into a really good rhythm tonight, and that’s what she’s been working on. And she’s been working hard in practice and in matches where she can get that contact and control it and tonight she did a great job and Colorado State paid the price.”
For the most part, serving set the tone early in the match. The game plan for the Rams was to serve hard to get Michigan out of system. And they succeeded early on, as Michigan came out slow and was unable to properly corral the ball.
But Jones answered immediately, getting aggressive — despite being out of system — hammering the ball home to set the tone for Michigan to follow. The change in momentum allowed the Wolverines to fight out of their slump, with Jones leading the way with a then-game-high six kills.
The turning point in the first set came at 13-10. The game had been back and forth, but Colorado State had seen the better end of a few closely contested rallies. But with a kill and a series of serves from Jones, Michigan went on a seven-point run that shifted the momentum firmly in its favor. With control of the pace, the Wolverines didn’t relinquish the lead the remainder of the set.
And if there was any better way to close out the set, the team wouldn’t have had it.
At 23-21 in the first set, Michigan fell into a scramble. The dig hadn’t come off clean and junior setter Mackenzi Welsh did a backwards jog to get to the ball. In an attempt to salvage the play, she did a two-handed backwards bump to send the ball high into the air to Jones’ general vicinity.
As she had done all game, Jones bailed out the out-of-system play.
And then she saw her turn to serve again.
If it was any testament to her serving skills, no other play or player managed to draw the attention of the arena the way Jones did as she approached the service line with the ball in her hands. Ushering a wave of silence and drawing everyone to their feet, she delivered a serve worthy of the attention. It was an ace, her sixth of the night.
And even though her serving was mitigated due to the adjustments in the second set, the Rams failed to shut her down. Despite a still productive set, her impact was forced to just four kills and three digs.
While that’s what it says on the stat sheet, the story on the court was entirely different. Jones attracted more attention from the defense that freed up senior outside hitter Carly Skjodt and redshirt junior middle blocker Cori Crocker, who Rosen stated were “at the top of every scouting report.”
“They were committed on (Jones) more,” Rosen said. “I mean, when someone gets six kills in the first set. They’re going to focus on her some more and I thought there were a lot of times when they formed a really good block and she found a way to bang around them and off of her.”
The third set was a return to form for Jones after a brief set out of the spotlight. Jones tallied eight kills in the third set alone. The next closest to her on the team was Skjodt with seven — for the entire game. And it wasn’t long into the third before she recovered her groove, scoring the first earned point for the Wolverines.
And in a more controlled set than the first two, with Michigan leading until the end, Jones — coming off of her serve — curled to the front of the net and ended the game on her terms, something she did the entire night.
But if you ask her, you won’t get the slightest bit of a boast or gloat. Because it wasn’t about her in her eyes. It was a team win, and to her, that was plenty.