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Dillard finds happiness at UNT after giving up pro volleyball career

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

The time that former North Texas volleyball standout Carnae Dillard spent playing professionally was among the most notable of her career.

It also was some of the most trying.

Dillard was arguably the best player in UNT volleyball history, not to mention one of the best overall athletes to come through the school in any sport, before she jetted off to Sweden more than a year ago.

Dillard won a title in Sweden and had a contract all lined up to play in a higher-level league in the Philippines this year.

DillardRick Yeatts
Rick Yeatts

She gave it all up to return home and rejoin the Mean Green, this time as an assistant coach.

"Volleyball wasn't fun anymore," Dillard said. "I wanted to start what I wanted to do. I can't ride this volleyball wave forever. Eventually I am going to get old."

Dillard chose to come home for her family and what she sees as her long-term future working in the medical field.

UNT's program has benefitted as well. Dillard is coaching while taking classes and has provided another voice for the Mean Green in the midst of a breakout season.

UNT is off to a 17-2 start heading into a match at UTEP on Friday.

"Having her as a mentor for our players and especially our outside hitters can only be a positive," UNT coach Andrew Palileo said. "She has done what we have asked her to do as far as continuing her relationship with the players in addition to maintaining the professional side."

Dillard works with UNT's players in practice and handles off-court coaching duties. Palileo joked that Dillard has one of the jobs UNT's players consider vitally important — arranging for meals on the road.

She also provides a unique perspective as a female coach and former player for UNT, which has two male coaches in Palileo and assistant coach Vinh Nguyen.

"She brings that player perspective," senior middle blocker Amanda Chamberlain said. "She played here, knows how Pali works and knows what he wants. She also brings a lot of energy and volleyball IQ."

Chamberlain said she looked up to Dillard when she was a player at UNT. Dillard played with a few of the Mean Green's current players, who saw her develop into one of the best players in program history.

Dillard set UNT records in several categories, including kills (2,327) and attack attempts (6,063) during one of the high points in program history. The Mean Green won 85 matches during Dillard's four seasons, from 2012-15.

UNT won just 55 matches in the four years before Dillard's arrival and 13 last season, the Mean Green's first without her.

There are several professional leagues outside the U.S. that took notice of Dillard, who signed to play in Sweden.

Dillard was named player of the year in the Elitserien League, but never found a comfort zone away from home.

"Being alone and not having your family available was hard," Dillard said. "I couldn't get to them. They couldn't get to me. I am a huge family person."

Being away from her mother, who battled breast cancer during her sophomore year, was particularly hard.

Dillard spent years developing into a standout player and reached the pinnacle of her college career when she received All-America honorable mention as a senior.

Playing professionally wasn't nearly as rewarding.

Dillard began to consider what was next in her life while she was playing in Sweden, including starting a family and a career.

It just so happened that UNT had an opening for an assistant coach.

"We discussed her coming back earlier," Palileo said. "It all depended on if she wanted to go back overseas. When the position came open, I wanted to at least ask her and see what she thought."

Dillard was on her way back to Denton a short time later.

"I weighed my options because I wanted to go back to school," Dillard said. "I could coach, go back to school and not prolong things another four or five months. It was a better option for me."

Dillard has been a hit as a coach this fall and provided a unique perspective for the Mean Green.

"She is fun but also has that serious side," Chamberlain said. "She tells you what you need to do to be better and knows the system."

The experience is one Dillard has enjoyed. Being a part of games and seeing the Mean Green grow as a team has been particularly rewarding. She's also learned about the rigors of coaching on the college level.

"It has its ups and downs and is hard work," Dillard said. "It's not 40 hours a week. It's more than that, but the girls make it super fun."

Dillard will likely be involved in the game in some way moving forward. She has coached a club team with Chamberlain.

That might be the route she follows while continuing her coaching career.

"Coaching club is a better fit for me," Dillard said. "I have been around volleyball for so long. I want to give back to the girls and help them develop like my coaches helped me."

For now, Dillard is enjoying the ride with some of her former teammates. UNT is in the midst of what could be the best season in program history.

The Mean Green never made the NCAA tournament while Dillard was playing but could have a shot this year.

Western Kentucky has won 30 straight matches against Conference USA opponents and is the heavy favorite to win the league title and its automatic berth in the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year.

UNT appears to be the team with the best chance of preventing WKU from winning the C-USA tournament and grabbing the automatic bid.

Dillard is quick to say she isn't the reason UNT made a big jump this season after finishing 13-19 last year. She said it's all about the players.

Dillard was thinking about her future and family when she gave up professional volleyball to come home to UNT. Making an impact for the program she once headlined and helping her former teammates grow as players has assured Dillard that giving up professional volleyball was the right decision.

"I can see how they developed since I left," Dillard said. "They are better players and leaders. It was like pulling teeth when I was a senior to motivate them. To see them go through what I went through and try to motivate the freshman is fun. I've seen them evolve."

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.