TUNNEL HILL -- With years of success behind it, the Northwest Whitfield High School volleyball team began this season with a bit of an identity crisis. There wasn't a set lineup that the Lady Bruins began the season looking to perfect, and there was plenty of youth in every rotation.
For sophomore Emma Allen, there was just as much room to grow.
"I knew this year was going to be different," Allen said. "No one really knew what to expect from us. It was a new season, and a lot of us weren't experienced. I think it really just took us getting out of our comfort zone to become what we did."
The Lady Bruins finished this season second in Region 6-4A, dropping the region championship match in four sets after a projected preseason finish near the bottom of the region. The team (31-11) finished with an appearance in the Sweet 16 of the Class 4A, and Allen was right there to lead the way.
Without her, they might not have even had a chance.
"I think the biggest difference about this year was that every other season, we've had an idea -- pretty much -- of where everyone was going to go," Northwest coach Kelsey Ikerd said. "This year was just the biggest question mark ever because we did not have a setter. We did not have someone that we knew that was going to compete and get better, and if we didn't have that we had no idea if we were going to be successful."
The obvious choice was Allen, the Lady Bruins' most experienced returning player. As a freshman, she finished the season as a middle hitter with 207 kills, 59 blocks and 45 digs.
But Ikerd was wondering if she was cut out to make a switch.
"We just sat down and we looked at our lineup, and it was very clear that the choice was Emma even though she had never set in her life," she said. "She had been nothing but a middle, and she didn't even play back row for us last year. We wanted to make sure she could even serve, and we wanted to make sure that she could transition into someone who could touch the ball every possession.
"Could she transition her mindset from wanting to make the kill into someone who took more of a back seat?"
Well, Allen did.
She finished the year as the main setter for the Lady Bruins, and still managed to lead the area in kills with 246 -- adding 62 aces, 416 assists, 170 digs and 53 blocks. For her efforts, Allen has been named the Daily Citizen-News Volleyball Player of the Year.
While Allen excelled in the transition on the court, her mentality was the most important part of her success this season, Ikerd said.
"She's a competitor," Ikerd said. "She is willing to do anything it takes to win. Even if that means spending extra time in the gym learning a position you've never played before or doing the very best on an assignment in the classroom to get the best grade possible."
Allen comes from a long list of Northwest Whitfield alumni and athletes. Her two older brothers, Matt and Drew, both played football for the Bruins and her older sister, Mary Kate, was the Volleyball Player of the Year her junior and senior year in 2015 and 2016.
Allen said, no doubt, her passion and love of sports comes from her family. She also plays basketball, just like her sister.
"I grew up watching Northwest sports, and I've always loved it," Allen said. "I looked up to my sister a lot, because she was in my place. Growing up, I wanted to be just like her. I think it means so much to me now because I had the perfect role model.
"I would definitely say my entire family has encouraged sports my whole life."
For Allen to branch out and find her own identity was something she admitted was difficult at first, but once she made the push she enjoyed every second.
"Being a setter helped me in so many ways with my hitting," she said. "It's a whole different perspective. Watching the setter have to think and place the ball right for the hitters, it opened my eyes. I was able to understand my team so much better all around since I moved positions."
Now with two more season to go, there's only more to come.
"It's really exciting, because I know what it was like to go to camps and look up to girls," Allen said. "I'm in that position now, and it's a lot more important. Every game is important, every set is important because I was that little girl."