North Texas head coach Ken Murczek had high expectations for Carnae Dillard in her freshman season.
The way Dillard met them had a whole lot to do with the momentum UNT will carry into the Sun Belt Conference tournament today, when the Mean Green (23-11) will face Middle Tennessee (10-22) in a 2:30 p.m. opening-round match in Bowling Green, Ky.
Dillard not only started, she carried a heavy load for UNT, which won the Sun Belt West Division title and earned the No. 3 seed in the eight-team event.
Dillard enters the Sun Belt tournament ranked second in kills during conference play with an average of 4.47 per set. She is the only player in the Sun Belt with at least 450 kills, 250 digs and 80 blocks, a performance that earned her Freshman of the Year honors in the league.
“I am shocked that I took so much on, but I knew that I had to step up,” Dillard said. “I am proud of myself.”
Dillard was one of two UNT players named first-team all-conference. Middle blocker Courtney Windham also made the team after ranking first in the Sun Belt with an average of 1.30 blocks per set, while her average of 3.12 kills per set ranked seventh in the league during the regular season.
Murczek had a pretty good idea of what he would get from Windham, a junior who started her career at Baylor before transferring to UNT.
Dillard was another story. The 2011 Texas Sportswriters Association 5A Player of the Year is among the highest-rated recruits to sign with UNT in recent years but had to go through the adjustment process of moving from high school to the college level.
“We put a lot on her in the last part of the season,” Murczek said. “She is passing half the floor in serve-receive and is being set double the amount of balls as anyone else. She is having to block the front row, is jump serving and playing defensive back row. But to me, that is why she had the accolades she did coming in. She can handle a heavy load.”
UNT will look to Dillard to lead the way again beginning today against MTSU, a team that has beaten the Mean Green in each of the last two Sun Belt tournaments.
UNT won its last five conference matches and believes it has a good chance to advance to the Sun Belt finals, where it would likely face national power Western Kentucky.
“We have a good shot,” senior setter May Allen said. “We are trying to stay level-headed, but we feel that we have a good shot to get to the finals and do well when we get there.”
That feeling is based largely on the way Dillard has developed into a headline player this season.
“She has been really important,” Allen said. “If she was having a good game, we would usually kill the other team. Whenever she comes down with a big kill, she comes down with a lot of energy and gives us momentum.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .