The front lawn was not level. The incline was so steep that when friends gathered for Friday night volleyball games, some of them had to serve uphill. One side of the net was known as “Uptown” and the other “Downtown”.
Aiko Jones grew up around the game in Kingston, Jamaica, but not in conditions conducive to rapid development.
“I signed up for a camp in Nebraska,” recalls the Louisville right winger. “I was scared and shocked. There were kids three or four years younger than me who were playing at such a high level that it didn’t make sense to me. I was like, ‘ there’s no way I can compete with these kids so much younger than me and so much better than me.’ It was crazy.
Note its use of the past tense. Though Jones arrived at the U of L admittedly “as raw as the chicken you pick at Kroger,” she’s since achieved enough sophistication to earn a starring role on the nation’s top-ranked team. She led the undefeated Cardinals with 10 kills in Saturday’s NCAA Tournament win over Ball State and will start Thursday afternoon’s Sweet 16 game against Florida as the U of L team leader in ace of service and impromptu dance moves.
For a work in progress, it is progressing quite well. University of L coach Dani Busboom Kelly says Jones has improved “a ton” and adds, “I think she still has a lot to do. »
“It’s pretty awesome when you talk about great players in the country to think that four years ago Aiko was playing on concrete outside,” Busboom Kelly said. “She didn’t grow up playing at the club and playing 60 games a year. She grew up playing three or four on concrete; very different from most volleyball players.
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She had a lot to learn, but Jones began her education with abundant athleticism. The daughter of Thaon Jon Jones, an accomplished Jamaican sprinter, Aiko (pronounced Eye-co) has competed in the long jump, discus throw, javelin and shot throw, earned a black belt in karate and says she is grateful for her high school didn’t have a basketball team or she might never have played volleyball.
“I got to see her at camp for a few years,” Busboom Kelly said. “I could tell she obviously had no experience. But she was a phenomenal athlete and she also wanted to be awesome and she was really passionate about the sport of volleyball.
“Aiko has the drive to be the best. You could tell that even in camp. She was hitting every ball in the middle of the net and she was always saying, ‘Get me the ball.’ Let’s not question her. But it’s cool that she still wants it and wants to get through some of the tough times of learning the game.”
Jones first met Busboom Kelly when the University of L coach was an assistant coach at Nebraska, where Jones’ father raced track in the 1980s. After Busboom Kelly became the head coach of the Cardinals, Jones decided to follow her to a town she didn’t know existed.
“Looking back, if I was a coach, I don’t know if I would have chosen myself,” Jones said. “But one thing I can say about myself is that I’m ready to learn and I want to see how good I can get. I take up the challenge to improve myself. I hold this close to my heart.
“There were times in my career when my coaches wouldn’t correct me because they knew I was already hard on myself. It’s not a place you want to be, really. It comes from the fact that I am never satisfied.
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After spending the 2018 season taking a crash course in college volleyball in a redshirt role, Jones joined the Louisville roster with an immediate impact. She led the U of L with 382 kills in 2019 and was twice named to the Atlantic Coast Conference first team. She ranks third in blocks and fourth in eliminations among current Louisville players and hopes to expand her skillset so she can become a six-rotation player.
“I really think I need to work on passing and defending the most,” she said. “I think now my best skill might be blocking. I think I can read a set, read a hitter, and that’s what I enjoy the most. There’s something about turning someone down that turns me on. It’s always been my favorite thing to do. »
Her initial feelings of inadequacy gave way to growing confidence and aspirations to play volleyball as a professional.
“I come from a place where I felt like I wasn’t good enough to recognize what I did well and recognize where I can improve,” Aiko Jones said. “To be proud, but to know that there is more.”