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It would be hard for Bethany Dillard to improve on her freshman basketball season at Central Arkansas Christian in North Little Rock.

But that doesn’t mean the 5-9 junior from Maumelle isn’t trying.

Dillard averaged 10.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.7 steals on one of the best teams in school history in 2017-18, joining four seniors — led by Christyn Williams, the No. 1 recruit in the nation that year and now starring for the University of Connecticut — in the starting lineup. CAC finished 36-1 to win the Class 4A state championship, the fourth title brought home to Mustang Mountain.

As a sophomore last year, despite a slow start following shoulder surgery, Dillard averaged 18 points per game late in the season for a team that finished 24-8 after an opening-round loss in the Class 3A State Tournament.

This year, the Lady Mustangs were 14-3 overall and 3-0 in the 3A-5 at press time. Dillard is averaging 22 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists per game as they won their 53rd consecutive conference game Monday night in a laugher over LISA Academy.

And Dillard has been the undisputed leader.

“She is actually playing a little above what we expected,” CAC coach Steve Quattlebaum said. “She’s shot the ball really well. She’s shot almost as many 3-pointers as anybody on our team and is shooting at 52 percent. She’s had a 42-point game and a couple of 30s. And she’s been real efficient. She’s not taking just a ton of shots.”

Looking back over her young career, Dillard called that freshman season “surreal.”

“Being the young one, I was a little timid at first, but we definitely grew over the year,” she said. “Last year was definitely harder. I was the only returning starter, and Coach Q told me I had the leadership role. But it was still kind of hard because I was still considered one of the young ones.

“It was rough, but I definitely grew into that role. I’m still growing into it, but now I kind of feel like I’ve taken the reins and taken control.”

She said Quattlebaum had assigned her roles.

“In Coach Q’s words, ‘Don’t let us lose,’” she said. “That’s my No. 1 role. My second role is to give my teammates encouragement and a little more courage to be able to score the ball and help me help us win. So far, so good this year.”

Although it’s not her natural position, Quattlebaum said, Dillard has played point guard for the Lady Mustangs.

“She’s the best person we’ve got at that position right now,” the coach said. “We’re still bringing along a couple of sophomores to try to take over that spot, but we’ve been playing pretty well with her there, so we’ve kept her there.”

The accolades and statistics have come after Dillard sustained a pretty major shoulder injury. During a seventh-grade game, she was fouled and headed to the floor when she tried to catch herself “in a weird way” and dislocated her right/dominant/shooting shoulder.

“We thought it was a one-time injury and it would be fine,” Dillard said. “But I kept falling on it because I don’t know how to fall right, and I kept dislocating it. The doctor said I had a torn labrum, which was why it kept dislocating.”

During her freshman season, she wore tape to keep the shoulder in place. She found out she needed surgery after the season. After the May 18 procedure, she wasn’t cleared to play until October of her sophomore year.

“From there until Christmas, she wasn’t very good, but by the time we went to Memphis for the tournament last year, she had come into her own,” Quattlebaum said. “She had some very good games over there and led us the rest of the year.”

While the surgery fixed the issue, Quattlebaum still has the occasional flashback.

“Every once in a while when she hits the floor, she’ll get up shaking her shoulder, and we hold our breath because she hits the floor quite frequently,” he said. “That’s one of the things she needs to improve on.”

Dillard has already drawn scholarship offers from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro; Union University and Austin Peay State University, both in Tennessee; Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia; Harding University in Searcy; and Columbia University in New York City.

“And she’s got another year to get better,” Quattlebaum said. “She’s not getting in any hurry about deciding on anything. She plays [Amateur Athletic Union] ball in the summer, so this coming summer will be a big one for her.”

He said he thinks she is a Division I basketball player and that CAC’s soccer coach, Carter Lambert, agreed that she could play Division I soccer.

“But she’s going to play basketball in college, and I think when that’s all she’s doing, she’ll make another leap,” Quattlebaum said. “There’s no telling how good she can become.

“She’s just an all-around athlete. She has a motor; she never gets tired. She plays on the front of our press, so she’s running all the time. She just never stops.”

Dillard said she doesn’t really have a dream school.

“My options are open and clear, and I’m down to go anywhere, whatever program seems to fit me right, and they like me and I like them,” she said. “I’ve got a year and a couple of months to decide.”

Meanwhile, she sports a 4.0 grade-point average and is involved with Student Council, the History Club, the National Honor Society, Beta Club and Mu Alpha Theta at Mustang Mountain. Just 16, she’s considering physical therapy or something else in the medical field for her life after basketball.

Quattlebaum called Dillard “a great kid.”

“She’s a good student, respectful, easy to coach,” he said. “She has a great attitude.”

Quattlebaum has been her coach since she was in the seventh grade.

“I feel like I’ve had him my whole life,” she said. “He’s more than a coach now. Through the years, we’ve gotten so close. We also go to the same church (Levy Church of Christ). You could say he’s kind of a father figure, but I’d say he’s more of a grandfather figure. He’s getting up there, although he might kill me for saying that.”

They’re hoping to collaborate to bring a fifth state title to Mustang Mountain this season.

“She’s been a leader her whole life,” the coach said. “She works real hard, and the kids respect that. It was a little hard for her last year being a sophomore with some pretty good senior leaders, but by the end of the year, she was coming into her own.

“This year, she’s our undisputed leader.”

At Mustang Mountain, that’s saying something.

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