TUNNEL HILL — Before the season, head coach Kelsey Ikerd and her Northwest Whitfield High School volleyball team divided the schedule into three phases.

The first was to finish atop Area 7-4A in the regular season. Mission accomplished. The second phase? To win the area tournament and earn a top seed for the playoffs. The Lady Bruins did that last week.

Phase three couldn't have started much better for the Lady Bruins Wednesday night. Northwest (38-6) opened phase three, the state playoffs, with a 3-0 win over Area 5-4A's fourth-seeded Mount Zion-Jonesboro (1-13), outscoring the visitors 75-10 across the three sets to reach the second round of the playoffs.

"Any time you can get a win in the state tournament is big," Ikerd said. "The goal for this phase three of the season is to survive and advance."

The Lady Bruins did much more than survive while advancing on Wednesday. They won the first set 25-5, then started sets two and three with 12 and 17 straight points, respectively, on the way to 25-3 and 25-2 wins. Northwest's Allie Anderson, who usually is the leadoff server for the Lady Bruins, stayed serving for those opening stretches, blasting serves that Mount Zion often couldn't return. She set a new Northwest record for aces in a match with 16.

"I think we were playing against Cedartown, and I had kind of a similar run, but not that long," Anderson said. "My teammates just helped pep me up. It was definitely fun."

Anderson also tallied 15 assists in the match, while Emma Allen had 11 kills and five aces, while Emma Hayes chipped in seven digs and five kills.

The three-phase mission's end goal is to return to the state finals and bring home a win. The Lady Bruins made a historic run to the state championship match last season before being ousted by Marist.

"The bulk of our returners have tasted what it's like," Ikerd said. "We left the end of last season with not a great taste in our mouth."

Wednesday's match was the first step. The next is Saturday. The Lady Bruins host Area 1's second-seeded team, Central-Carroll, in the Sweet 16.

Anderson is one of those returners from the state runners-up a season ago.

"I think we can do it," Anderson said. "We all have a good mindset."

One thing this season's squad has going for it that the 2020 team did not is the benefit of earning the area's top seed in the playoffs. The Lady Bruins fell to Heritage in the area tournament last year, and had to go on the road for several playoff games.

This year, the Lady Bruins host at least the first two rounds of the playoffs, should they keep winning. If the Lady Bruins run into a fellow one seed, the Georgia High School Association's universal coin toss will determine the host.

Ikerd said the goal for the Lady Bruins remains the same, no matter the opponent.

"Phase three is to get through the playoffs and win the last game," she said. "Only one team in class 4A can win their last game, and we'd like for that to be us this year."

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