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Athens Academy volleyball reached the Elite Eight of the Class A-Private state playoffs for the second year in a row last week.

The Spartans scored wins over St. Francis and Landmark Christian, defeating both teams in three straight sets.

After sweeping St. Francis by an average of 11 points in each set, the Spartans were pushed by Landmark Christian. Athens Academy narrowly escaped set two, edging out a 26-24 victory due to the team’s power behind the service lime.

Athens Academy gained confidence for the next set and earned a 25-8 victory over the War Eagles to move to the third round of the state playoffs.

“I'm so proud of them. They're just coming in with a lot of energy and sticking with it the whole time,” said head coach Jane Thomas. “We just gotta keep moving forward with that same mindset.

Mara Thomas finished the match against Landmark Christian with six aces on the team’s 16. Olivia Nealy followed with five aces of a team-high 24 service attempts.

Jane Thomas said that keeping service pressure on the opponents was a key part of the Spartans’ win because it kept their offense out of system and unable to score kills.

Nealy and Peyton Wheeler led the Spartans’ own offense in the week’s two matches. They each added eight kills against St. Francis followed by 10 kills each against Landmark Christian.

“Size-wise, we were a lot smaller and I think they were playing a little tentative at first and not swinging and being aggressive,” Jane Thomas said. “Once we realized we can still do the things that we've always done and stay aggressive, that’s when we sort of picked it up and so staying with that plan, they were able to just start rolling some points off and playing better.”

Jane Thomas credited her team’s defense for pulling out the recent win.

She said having a strong defense was the game plan against the War Eagles because of their smart and powerful hitters.

“It was just us really kind of putting the pedal down and trying to really stay focused and staying aggressive on defense,” Jane Thomas said. “We had a mindset of playing every ball and staying scrappy.”

The Athens Academy squad recorded 116 digs throughout the two matches. Wheeler tallied a team-high 12 digs against Landmark Christian while Nealy and Mara Thomas finished with 14 digs each against St. Francis. Madeline Wicker additionally recorded 14 digs against the Knights, her career high.

Mara Thomas finished with 47 assists throughout the matches, leading the Spartan offense to an average hitting percentage of .155.

“Mara's kind of just like our glue. She really can make something out of everything,” Jane Thomas said. “Whether it's a good pass, she's got good hitters to go to, but on a bad pass she's able to get a good swing across somebody. And that's so valuable.”

The Spartans hosted North Cobb Christian in the third round of the state playoffs on Wednesday, Oct. 27, after press time.

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