Rainelle Jones has fond memories of attending Terrapin games — particularly football — while growing up in Oxon Hill, Md. She loved being part of the Maryland Stadium throng, jumping to her feet, rooting for the home team and feeding off the energy.
“It was just fun and happiness,” she smiled.
These days, Jones is providing those sorts of thrills for other local youngsters. A senior middle blocker for the surging Maryland volleyball team, Jones & Co., are off to a torrid 13-3 start, including a recent win against No. 2 Wisconsin in a rocking Xfinity Pavilion before the third-largest crowd in school volleyball history (1,828).
Jones was instrumental in a pivotal third-set win, blocking three straight Badger shots and forcing Wisconsin to call timeout. The Terps kept the momentum going and won the set 25-18, going on for a five-set victory in Maryland’s first-ever victory against a top-10 foe.
It shouldn’t have taken a timeout to figure out to try to spike somewhere else. Anyone keeping up with Jones knows she leads the nation in blocks per set at 1.80, using that uber-athletic, 6-foot-3 frame and her impeccable timing. In fact, Jones’ self-imposed wall is part of a commanding defensive presence for the Terps, who are nearly doubling up opponents (3.15 blocks per set to 1.7) in that important defensive stat.
“We aren’t moving her around a lot,” Maryland coach Adam Hughes said. “She has learned to trust her instincts and trust her eyes. She has become more comfortable, and I see the game slowing down for her. She feels like she can play faster because of that.”
The senior’s evolution in the game has been a process, Jones adding pieces each season with a steely determination.
“She is really, really good at redefining herself, almost talking about what ‘Rainelle 2.0’ is going to look like,” Hughes said. “She has done a fantastic job building a process to make incremental increases in her skill-sets. And it’s on and off the court, becoming more involved as a vocal member of our student-athlete community on social justice. She wouldn’t have been able to do that as a freshman.”
Jones points to the culture of the team — an eclectic mix of four graduate transfers, two more seniors, five juniors or sophomores and then five freshmen — as a catalyst for the Terps’ success this year.
“Basically, half our team changed with a bunch of freshmen coming in and [five total] transfers,” Jones said. “The energy with all the different types of peoples and different backgrounds has changed us. What we do best is we really hold each other accountable and challenge each other.”
And in the process, Maryland, picked last in the Big Ten preseason volleyball poll, might just ease into the conversation in the toughest volleyball conference in the land. Six Big Ten teams are ranked in the America Volleyball Coaches Association poll this week, and Maryland (now receiving votes) has never finished higher than eighth in the standings since joining the conference in 2014.
Now, Hughes says the season this past spring may have helped the Terps, with young players perhaps getting more experience behind so many veterans. Laila Ricks, Sydney Dowler and Sam Csire (now sophomores) emerged. Transfers Paula Neciporuka (VCU) and Hannah Thompson (Notre Dame) have stepped right in this fall, as has freshman libero Milan Gomillion from Bowie, Md.
Junior Cara Lewis, daughter of former Maryland basketball star Cedric Lewis, and Jones are holdovers but on a team that won just 18 contests the last two seasons. They seem headed for many more this year.
The fresh feel in the program is exciting.
“Having those grads come in from different schools and seeing what they can bring to the table has really helped us a lot,” Hughes said.
So has the continued development of returnees like Jones. Before Hughes was her guiding influence on the court, Michelle Jones got first dibs, introducing her daughter to volleyball, and coaching her in the Fort Hunt recreation league when Rainelle was 12.
Her family historically has had a jones for basketball. Michelle played that sport for the University of Winnipeg and the Canadian National Team. Oh, and Dad, Speedy, played at Maryland 1984-1987.
But basketball was never really Rainelle’s groove.
“It was too aggressive, all the touching and whatnot,” she said. “I did like the swag of basketball, but volleyball is so positive, coming together after each play and the unity that every team I’ve ever played on has had.”
Mom remembers onlookers skeptical of her eldest daughter choosing a sport other than hoops.
“To this day that’s still the first question she gets: ‘Do you play basketball?” said Michelle, who studied up on her daughters’ favored sport so she could help.
Rainelle wore her mother’s 20-year-old kneepads and went to volleyball tryouts, eventually finding a home on a U-15 team with Metro Volleyball, the Washington, D.C., club powerhouse.
“They were really excited about her potential,” Michelle said. “Metro prides itself on finding these really raw athletes and helping them grow.”
The competition at Metro put Rainelle on the fast track developing her game. In 2016 and 2017, Jones was selected to the USA High Performance A1 Team, and also earned an invitation to the Team USA National Holiday Prospect Camp in Colorado Springs.
Jones still hopes to land on Team USA and represent her country in international competition, an aspiration sidetracked by COVID the last two years. The year before, she was ill and had to drop out of tryouts.
It’s hard to believe any USA squad couldn’t benefit from the nation’s leading blocker dominating play at the net. Jones’s eye-popping athleticism includes reaching 10 feet, 6.5 inches high from a standing start. She continues to work at her craft in a way that has impressed Hughes and his staff.
Her statistics are making the rest of the volleyball world take notice, too, and Hughes sees opposing teams working strategically to limit her offensive opportunities at the net. That’s too bad. Jones’s ability to block there is almost like a dunk in basketball and a play that brings the young, local fans who flock around her after home games to their feet.
And that’s a feeling Jones remember very well.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics