TUNNEL HILL — As Northwest Whitfield High School's volleyball team prepares for its matchup Wednesday in the Elite 8 of the Class 4A state playoffs, they'll be focused on working hard, playing together as a team and making sure Emma Allen is wearing a specific hairstyle.
"This year, I've been rocking a low pony, and we've been winning so many games when I have a low ponytail," Allen, a junior for the Lady Bruins, said of her usual game rituals. "I also wear the same socks every game."
Northwest's other Emma, Emma Hayes, a fellow junior and Allen's warmup partner, is a believer in the power of Allen's low pony.
"We warm up the same way every game, too," Hayes said. "Like she said, the hair thing does work."
After the way the Lady Bruins have performed in the first two round of the playoffs, it's easy to see why they don't want to change much heading into Wednesday's match at 5 p.m. at Savannah's Islands High School. Northwest hasn't dropped a set yet in their two playoff rounds, first sweeping Arabia Mountain 3-0 in the first round before dispatching Luella 3-0 in the second on Saturday.
Islands, the top seed in Class 4A's Area 3, had to come back from down two sets to one to defeat Fayette County Saturday.
Northwest is 32-10. They entered the playoffs as the second seed out of Area 7. A loss in the finals of the area tournament, which put them at the second seed and came against a Heritage team that the Lady Bruins had just dispatched in the semifinals, has been a motivator in Northwest's hot start to the playoffs.
"We accepted it and used that motivation instead of backing down," said Allen. "We accepted it and moved on and used that motivation to get better."
"We just focused working on things we needed to get better at," said senior Kiara Hughes of the response after the loss in the area finals.
That focus and hot start aside, Hughes said she's still a little nervous for tonight's match.
"I'm really nervous, but I'm really excited to see what happens and see where we are."
For the Lady Bruins, playoff experience is plentiful.
Four-year seniors have seen four straight playoff trips. Two seasons ago, the Bruins reached the Elite 8 as well, but were put out in that round by Columbus. Northwest made the second round last year before being bounced by Woodward Academy.
Senior Kiersten Maynard thinks Northwest has a shot at advancing further this year.
"I think we have a great shot of continuing on to the final four," Maynard said. "I've been a Lady Bruin since eighth grade, and ever since, I've had everyone beside me every step of the way no matter what. We all work together, and we're able to conquer anything that's thrown our way."
"We're more than a team, we're just like a family," Allen said.
Hayes has enjoyed the ride with her volleyball family thus far. She just hopes to keep it going.
"I'm just happy and excited that we've made it this far," Hayes said. "Hopefully we'll win and make it even further."