Fleming shores up middle for Illini volleyball

Fleming shores up middle for Illini volleyball

CHAMPAIGN— Chris Tamas maintained throughout the offseason he wouldn't use one of his open scholarships and add a transfer simply to fill a roster spot.

Yes, Illinois had a need at middle blocker with just two returning for the 2018 season in All-American Ali Bastianelli and Blayke Hranicka after Tyanna Omazic transferred to Missouri. But Tamas wasn't interested in depth for depth's sake. Any new player had to be able to compete at the Big Ten level and be a fit for the program.

Tamas didn't stop looking, though. In a fairly whirlwind process, Tamas officially added University of the Pacific transfer Ashlyn Fleming less than a week before the start of training camp and just 23 days before the Sept. 24 season opener against UNC-Wilmington in Fort Collins. Colo.

"It kind of came up last minute," Tamas said. "We took a look at everyone that came across our board pretty much. Some players don't want to come to you. That's fine.

"She's a really hard worker, and watching some film of her she did really nice, fundamental things. Now we'll see if she can compete at this level. I wouldn't do that if I didn't think she could play here."

Fleming hit the transfer market in July amid some real roster churn at Pacific and a shakeup of the Tigers' coaching staff. The 6-foot-4 middle blocker was one of five transfers this offseason for Pacific — four of which made up the Tigers' sophomore class in 2017. Her now-former teammates wound up at Duke, Southern California, Texas Christian and North Carolina.

Fleming weighed her options before deciding on Illinois. One aspect she seriously considered was moving across the country. The San Jose, Calif., native got to play in front of her family her first two seasons.

Part of the allure of Illinois, though, was the fact both Chris and Jen Tamas are Pacific alums. The Illinois coach and his volunteer assistant wife are also both California natives.

"It was that secure feeling," Fleming said. "They went to the same school I had been at. They know places in San Jose and California we could talk about. They could be kind of my home away from home. That was definitely a draw. I thought I could go across the country."

So Fleming packed up her entire life and flew cross-country less than a week before her first season at Illinois would start. While Fleming did fill a real need on the Illinois roster, she's also challenged her new teammates the first two weeks of training camp.

"Going from two to three middles obviously makes a huge difference," Bastianelli said. "We're able to scrimmage both sides of the net having experienced middles.

"She brings a lot of great qualities to the gym. She's a great leader, she brings a lot of offense and her block is really good. She really challenges Blayke and I and all the other hitters with everything that she does."

Fleming finished her sophomore season at Pacific with 285 kills and 125 blocks. That came after she put up 269 kills and 109 blocks as a freshman for the Tigers.

"When you look at transfers, you want to look at their stat line," Chris Tamas said. "Her stat lines were good. She knows what it's like to play at a high level. Now we're doing it here at Illinois."

Fleming is ready to test herself in the Big Ten after two seasons in the West Coast Conference.

"I love to just compete," she said. "When we were talking to Chris he was like, 'I can't guarantee you a spot.' I was like, 'I'm completely OK with that. I just want to come in and work with these girls.' This is a great team, and I really think with everyone stepping up and working hard we can do great things no matter who the six are."