First and foremost, Marist junior setter Nikki Jones is always looking for an open teammate, a favorable matchup and, every so often, a chance to swing away.

When the opportunity is there, she wants to rip the ball.

And with the RedHawks struggling to find a rhythm in the second set of their season opener, Jones took a quick pass from senior Maddie Arundel and ripped a powerful kill into the heart of the defense.

The momentum had shifted, and Marist found its rhythm.

Opening its state title defense on Aug. 27 in a nonconference matchup, host Marist defeated Providence Catholic 25-18, 25-23.

“I always like to do that one play. I’m left-handed, so that’s my go-to,” Jones said. “I have the most power there, and then I found out [as a youngster] that I’m somewhat good at it. I’ll tell the passer to pass it tight. You feel that instinct, do it now and use all the power I can.”

Jones (Most Holy Redeemer) finished with 18 assists. Junior Molly Mather added 10 assists.

The duo will see time this season at setter, but Jones said the back-and-forth battle for court time has brought them together.

“We’re both out there playing and knowing we’re there competing for the spot,” Jones said. “In and outside of volleyball, we’re close friends. We both compete, and we’re helping each other out.”

Having trailed the entire second set, Marist remained in striking distance but drew within a point at 16-15 following 2 thundering kills from Arundel.

With the mojo shifted, Jones took over.

On a pass from Arundel at the pin, Jones went up and blasted a kill past an unsuspecting Providence front row.

Arundel said the team’s ability to switch things up offensively is powerful.

“It mixes it up completely,” Arundel said. “Nikki gives me a look, just a nod, and I pass it tight so she can go up and get it. I trust her so much to go up and nail the ball. We did a good job talking things through and figuring it out.”

Marist closed the second set on a 7-2 run that featured 2 kills from Avery Jedry, a Jones and Ellie Kurpeikis (St. Barnabas) block, and a kill each from Jones and Kurpeikis.

Clemson-bound senior star Camryn Hannah crushed the match-winner on a high free ball, smashing the kill into the defense.

Two-time defending state champs, Marist is looking for small steps in the right direction early in the year.

“We’re focused on the little things in practice and put it all together during games,” Arundel said. “We know what we need to work on. We put our head down and get to work. That’s something we’re really strong at. We’re not looking too far ahead.”

Arundel (7 kills, 8 digs), Hannah (7 kills, 4 aces), Kurpeikis (3 kills, 3 blocks), Jedry (5 kills) and sophomore Mary Clare Brusek (6 kills) all chipped in for the RedHawks.

Brusek (Queen of Martyrs) and Kurpeikis stepped into roles as starting middle blockers, replacing seniors Abby Callahan and Mattie McCabe from the 2018 state team.

Late in the first set, Brusek was a force, ripping 3 timely kills with Arundel adding 2.

“I was a little nervous playing varsity, but the whole team welcomed me in and showed me around,” Brusek said. “I’m very excited. Cam was in the same spot two years ago, and she always tells me to just be myself and be confident.”

As for the run of big hits, she’ll take that feeling all season long.

“My trust with Molly [in her setting skills], it feels so powerful when you swing,” Brusek said. “I know when our setters set me the ball, it’s going to be a kill. If it isn’t, we’ll adjust and fix it next time.”