As the North Texas volleyball team makes its way through the 2017 season, players and coaches are perfectly fine with exploring the middle of the road.

That means leaning on the centerpieces of the roster, senior middle blockers Amanda Chamberlain and Holly Milam, who have helped the Mean Green show some burst on the front end of their schedule. After Wednesday’s three-set sweep of Abilene Christian, North Texas sits a 9-1 overall, matching the program’s best-ever start through 10 matches and earning a spot in the Top 25 of the Mid-Major Poll presented by the NIVC.

Chamberlain is hitting an astonishing .550 and leads the team in kills and blocks, while Milam is second in kills and paces the team in digs.

“Our system, we really try to force the middle in order to open up the pins. Amanda has the unique ability with her size (6-foot-3) and the speed she plays with – she wasn’t always like that, had to get in shape, but this year she’s putting it all together,” said head coach Andrew Palileo, whose team is on an eight-match winning streak heading into this weekend’s Maroon Classic at Mississippi State. “Holly is all about speed – she’s a little smaller at 6-1, and we really push the tempo with our sets for Holly, especially on our slides. She’s also very versatile and gets some numbers playing outside a few rotations, so she’s not always in the middle.”

With that strong central identity, the Mean Green have elbow room for senior Alexis Wright on the outside, with freshmen Barbara Teakell and Valerie Valerian also swinging effectively and efficiently. That’s a lot of territory and options for opposing defenses to confront, and it’s a huge reason for the program’s strong start.

“Barbara is your traditional outside who has that shot-making ability, and she knows how to manage her play and still score, even if she’s struggling a bit. She’s also holding up on passing, because you know everyone is trying to pick on our two freshmen in serve receive,” Palileo said. “Alexis, on the right side, has always been stuck with that ‘P’ word – potential. She’s finally executing what we are asking, and doing it in blocking as well.”

A year ago, the Mean Green played through a variety of obstacles and ended up with a 13-19 record; it was the first season without two-time Conference USA player of the year Carnae Dillard, and an early ankle injury to Milam jostled the lineup even more. When the backline defense started to wobble, Palileo moved setter Amy Henard to libero – it was a year where nothing came easily.

That last move, however, allowed Karley York to get time in at setter, and now as a junior she’s playing with savvy and confidence, averaging nearly 12 assists per set. Coaches and fans might say their team is on the verge of a breakout season, but North Texas truly had the elements waiting underneath the surface to spark a terrific season.

“We were in a lot of close matches last year, but the biggest thing about last year was our chemistry wasn’t what it should have been. Anytime we needed that trust when other teams were really pushing us, we didn’t have it,” Palileo said. “I knew we were coming back with a lot of experience, and that the freshmen were going to help. Our girls are getting along and genuinely care for each other – after each match we ask, did we love each other out there, did we make our teammates better, did we respect the game? That’s been our focus in the moment.”

Looking ahead, North Texas knows that Western Kentucky (which has three straight 30-win seasons) is the highest bar within C-USA, and there’s a cluster of other contenders (Rice, UTSA, Marshall, Southern Miss) who have reason to think they can put up a fight. Palileo likes his chances, however, because his roster keeps giving him reason to do so.

“You have to be able to win on the road – that’s always important. But our schedule fits us well, because last year we were at Western Kentucky, at Rice, at UTSA, and this year we have them all at home,” he added. “We’re just playing better, and better as a team at the things that will be required. That effectiveness in the middle has opened up things for us; we stay consistent with ball control, that will drive us in the middle.”

North Texas will face Southeastern Louisiana (1-9), Mississippi State (7-5) and Jackson State (1-10) at the Maroon Classic.

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