With Michigan up 24-23 in the third set against Colorado State, Wolverines’ senior libero Jenna Lerg received the Rams’ serve as the fans chanted “Let’s.” Junior middle blocker MacKenzi Welsh was next in line and set the ball as “Go” echoed through the arena. On the other end of Welsh’s set was freshman outside hitter Paige Jones, who promptly spiked the ball for the final point of the set as the crowd yelled “Blue!!!”
In Michigan’s final match of the Michigan Challenge, the Wolverines (9-0) took care of Colorado State (6-3) in three sets, 25-21, 25-23 and 25-18, behind a dominant performance by Jones. In her best showing of the young season, the freshman notched 25 points with 18 kills and seven aces, including an impressive six aces in the first set alone. Senior Carly Skojdt and redshirt junior Cori Crocker contributed seven-and-a-half and eight points respectively, but the upperclassmen stood back as Jones had her moment.
“Even when we didn’t have balance, this all-star right here just kinda took care of the ball, which is really not normal for our team, but she like blew it out,” Crocker said of Jones. “Even when we were balanced … she took care of the ball wherever she was.”
After a back and forth affair early in the first set and with Michigan down 13-10, Jones delivered a ferocious spike right in the center of several Rams players to help ignite a seven-point run. Two serves later, she would follow up with back-to-back aces before adding yet another ace to take a 17-13 lead all during the seven-point stretch.
Colorado State tried to inch its way back into the set, but was never able to fully close the gap as, of course, Jones nailed her sixth ace to win the set.
“In the first play they get us out of system, they set the ball to Paige out of system and she bangs the ball off of the hands for a kill and I was just like ‘Way to follow directions!’ ” Wolverines coach Mark Rosen said. “I thought that was a great approach and I think that set the tone for the rest of the team because they were like ‘Hey, that’s what we’re supposed to do and it worked.’
“The more aggressive we were in the first game, the more we were paid for it. I think that summed up (Jones’) match, it’s just how she started it really set the tone.”
The second set was also highly competitive. This time, however, Michigan did not put together any big scoring run and did not fully pull ahead until the very end of the set.
Up 23-20, the Wolverines looked poised to put the set away. Two Jones mistakes gave the Rams life. But that was extinguished by a Crocker kill before Skodjt finished off the set for good.
“I think that one of the things about tonight’s game is that, for the first time, we came out not on our right foot,” Crocker said. “We started out, we seemed a little bit timid or whatever emotions I think kind of got the best of us for a little bit in the first set. That’s the first time that it’s happened this (season), that that struggle has kind of hit us and we battled back.”
After close first and second sets Michigan flipped a switch before the third, and ultimately final, set.
The Wolverines scored the first point of the set on a service error by Colorado State and did not relinquish the lead from that moment on. Sparked by an early four-point run, Michigan took a 10-5 lead and dominated the rest of the set.
“Our team did a great job of once we got them a little on their heels in that third set, we jumped on them pretty well and that (made) life a lot easier,” Rosen said. “I just thought that we did a great job.”
Going forward, the Wolverines know they cannot rely on these types of stellar performances from Jones alone and must play a complete team game. Rosen, Crocker and Jones, though, are not concerned, as they claim the depth of the team means that anyone can step up on any day.
“Sometimes you just have your night,” Jones said on her performance. “Sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s Cori, sometimes it’s Carly. I just think that’s the great thing about this team, that if one person can’t perform, there’s another person that’s gonna step up.”