After Northwest Whitfield High School's volleyball team fell in the Class 4A state championship game in November 2020, head coach Kelsey Ikerd decided to pull her upcoming seniors aside.
"When last season ended, I met with the junior class and just talked with them about taking the reins," Ikerd said. "A lot of that lands on Emma."
Emma Allen had always found success on the volleyball court. She was named the Daily Citizen-News' All-Area Player of the Year two seasons ago after her sophomore season.
But ahead of her senior year she needed to step up as a leader.
"My leadership role has taken over a lot from where I was," Allen, who concluded her senior season for Northwest in October, said. "Position-wise it was the same, but my leadership role got much bigger."
Allen and the group of Northwest seniors led the Lady Bruins through an undefeated trek to the Area 7-4A championship and back into the state's Final Four. Allen has been a part of the only two Northwest volleyball teams to reach the state semifinals.
In her senior season, the blocker and setter had 96 aces, 454 assists, 50 blocks, 354 digs and 552 kills.
She led the Lady Bruins on the court in aces, kills and digs, but, just as importantly, Ikerd said, emotionally and vocally.
"You can see that when you watch her play," Ikerd said. "You can see her going around and giving high-fives when a teammate does well, you can see her verbally encouraging a teammate that wasn't playing so great, and she held everyone accountable when maybe we weren't playing as hard as we should."
For that senior season, Allen has been named the Daily Citizen-News' All-Area Volleyball Player of the Year for the second time.
"I didn't put much thought into awards and titles this year, I just wanted to focus on the memories and winning games," Allen said.
The wins came, and so did the awards.
Allen and the Lady Bruins finished 40-7, the last loss coming in the Final Four against Flowery Branch. The Lady Bruins were 10-0 in Area 7-4A play, earning the championship after missing out the previous season despite the history-making run to the state final.
Allen was named the Class 4A player of the year in the state by the Georgia Volleyball Coaches Association. It was at the meeting where that award was decided last month that Ikerd got some perspective on just how good she had it with Allen on her team.
"They were saying how they would love to have Emma on their team," Ikerd said. "As a coach, that's the ultimate compliment. If you would look at scouting reports that other teams had on us, she would be the one at the top, underlined, in bold, because she was the one you had to stop."
Allen was a constant worrying presence for each Lady Bruins opponent.
Ikerd said Allen averaged more than one touch each time the ball went across the net onto Northwest's side. And one out of every two times Allen got a touch, she sent it across for a kill.
"You just have to try to keep it away from her," Ikerd said.
When Allen wasn't racking up kills and points, she was setting up teammates, like fellow senior Emma Hayes, for easy kills of their own.
The Emma-Emma duo was the backbone of the dominant Northwest teams the last two seasons.
"It's an honor to be able to play with these same sisters from my first to my last," Allen said. "I can't think of one game where (Hayes) hasn't been my warm-up partner."
Hayes was named the Daily-Citizen News' Player of the Year last season and is a member of the newspaper's All-Area first team this season.
Ikerd said she had to lean even more on the two Emmas and the Northwest seniors to help the Lady Bruins prepare for the 2021 season. Ikerd was pregnant, with a due date of two weeks before the season's start. Her daughter Julianne was born in late July.
With Ikerd unable to be as active a participant in preseason practices as she would normally be, Allen said the players grew closer because of their reliance on one another.
"From the beginning to the end of the year our connection and our team relationship was just crazy good," Allen said. "The number one thing we focused on in practice is just having fun. And by the end of the season we all got that much closer. It was so easy to play on the court with one another because we were so close."
Once the games started, Ikerd knew her players had a great opportunity to have a special season.
"When Emma's on the floor, our team always has a chance of winning," Ikerd said. "I was a firm believer in that honestly from her freshman year. She's such a big competitor, that, when games are on the line, she will find the way to win. I never felt uncomfortable, and as a coach that's rare."
Allen showed that in an Elite 8 win over Chestatee. With the Lady Bruins down 24-20 in the third set and one Chestatee point away from dropping the set, Northwest scored six straight points to take the set and match and earn a trip to the Final Four. Allen tallied the last two points to secure the win.
Allen is undecided on whether she will play volleyball in college. She's long wanted to attend the University of Georgia but doesn't think she quite has the ability to compete for a Southeastern Conference program. She's gotten some interest from smaller schools, though, and said she'll make that decision soon.
If Allen has already played the last match of her volleyball career, she knows how special the sport has been to her.
"The best four years of my life," Allen said. "No question."