June 5, 2018
DENTON - More than two years removed from starring in a North Texas volleyball uniform and now pursuing a degree in radiologic technology from Parker University in Dallas, Carnae Dillard is still making a difference with her skills on the court.
The former assistant coach and All-America outside hitter for the Mean Green joined forces with five fellow former All-Americans on Team #VOLLEYDREAM, which was crowned the Women's Open Division champion at last week's USA Volleyball Open National Championship.
"It honestly felt like I was back in high school playing club volleyball again," Dillard said. "Being able to compete again made me miss being on the court. Volleyball will have a place in my heart forever."
Despite practicing together for 90 minutes the day before and putting that many former stars on the court, the team had no issue establishing enough chemistry to string together seven-straight wins to claim the title.
"Of course there were kinks to work out, like the height of the ball for the hitters, but that's about it," Dillard said. "We gelled really fast and played well together."
Team #VOLLEYDREAM accounted for 11 AVCA All-America nods from 2011-17 and was comprised of three members of the 2012 national champion Texas Longhorns, including two-time Volleyball Magazine Player of the Year Haley Eckerman.
"I've seen most of these girls play on TV, and I was a huge fan girl," Dillard said. "I had looked up to all the players on my team, so it was awesome being right next to them and feeling unstoppable."
In addition to being made up of former Division I stars and All-Americans, the squad made USA Volleyball Open history as the first entirely African-American team to compete in the event's 89-year history.
"It was such an honor," Dillard said. "We did get some stares and ignorant comments, but we stayed focused and did what we set out to do. It was a great feeling to know we were playing for something bigger."
The team became advocates for young minority volleyball athletes who find it difficult to break into a predominately Caucasian sport. According to the NCAA Race and Gender Demographics Database, just 10.7 percent of women's indoor volleyball players in 2016-17 were African-American, while 73 percent were Caucasian.
"We wanted minority girls to have something to look forward to in volleyball," Dillard said. "You might see a few African-American athletes playing at the highest level. We wanted to be a positive role model for them and show them that they can be like us."
Eckerman and Khat Bell, who starred alongside each other at Texas from 2011-14, founded and recruited the team with no intention of making such a statement. When they noticed that they had built an all-star team of African-American players, they decided to make it something bigger.
"Sometimes we have to work twice as hard to be noticed but, in the end, it pays off," Dillard said. "We were hoping to be a strong influence for those girls who maybe shy away from the sport."
The group immediately began to notice its impact, attracting a lot of young minority girls to cheer them on over the last days of the event, but it stretched even further than they expected.
"Most of our recognition came from other players and parents saying they loved what we were about," Dillard said. "They were proud that we were having fun while showing people that standards can be broken. Overall, I think we turned some heads."
Following their championship run, the team discussed continuing their efforts and playing together again next year. Still riding the excitement of just getting the chance to play with such a star-studded team, Dillard said she would do it again in a heartbeat.
"I hope Team Dream will be playing in the 60+ division one day."