Fleming fits into crucial role for Illini in first year


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CHAMPAIGN — Illinois volleyball had just a couple of players-only practices left this summer when Ashlyn Fleming arrived in Champaign. Even then she couldn't immediately join her brand-new teammates on the court.

"There was a little anxiety with it," Illinois redshirt junior outside hitter Beth Prince said. "She got here and we had maybe two practices left without the coaches that we had scheduled. She didn't have her physical done and wasn't cleared to play in those.

"We were like, 'OK, we have this girl but we're not going to get to see her play literally until the first day of preseason.' That was a little weird. That's never been the case for us."

The wait turned out to be well worth it. Fleming filled a serious need for the Illini this season, and the 6-foot-4 middle blocker earned All-Big Ten second-team honors during her first season in the conference after two years at Pacific to help lead third-ranked and third-seeded Illinois (30-3) into today's 11 a.m. Sweet 16 match against Marquette (28-6) at Huff Hall.

"It's a really big deal we got her," Prince said. "She jumped in and did awesome right away."

Finally cleared, Fleming jumped right in with her new team. The start of preseason practices — her first time on the court with the Illini — came less than a week after she arrived in Champaign and only 23 days before the season opener against UNC-Wilmington in the Colorado State tournament.

"I think it was 'work' right from the beginning," Fleming said. "It was kind of getting acclimated to one another. Playing for long hours. Working through little kinks. I think that's the benefit now.

"Because we worked through those at the beginning, we could start building on and adding new, different complexes to our play. I think that's helped us continue to progress throughout the season."

That Illinois had the potential to be one of the elite teams in the country with returning players like Jordyn Poulter, Ali Bastianelli and Jacqueline Quade wasn't something that Fleming focused on too much when she hit the transfer market in July and went searching for a new volleyball home.

"I just wanted to find the place that was the best fit for me people-wise and atmosphere-wise," Fleming said. "I definitely knew this was the place, and I just think everything that has come along with it has just been an extra benefit. Being able to play with all these people ... it's been a lot of fun, and I'm really thankful for it."

Her new Illini teammates are pretty thankful, too. Tyanna Omazic's transfer to Missouri in the offseason opened up a hole in Illinois' rotation. Fleming has more than filled it. The San Jose, Calif., native ranks fifth on the team with 188 kills (albeit at the highest percentage), and her 121 blocks is just four shy of her career high set in 2017 at Pacific and trails Bastianelli — the all-time blocks leader in Illini history — by just 47 total blocks on the season.

"You never really know how anyone new coming into the program is going to fit," Poulter said. "Each team, every year, is a little bit different. Ashlyn, the first day she was in the gym and around all of us you could tell she was a hard worker and wanted to get better, and she was eager to learn. I think that is really rewarding for our teammates and coaching staff to see that hunger and that drive. She's done a great job for us."

Prince called Fleming "an amazing human." It's a sentiment her other teammates shared.

"She's a great teammate and very vocal, and she's going to always have your back," Bastinaelli said. "We are very appreciative that she's on our team and not on the other side of the net. ... She was so quick to pick up on the Big Ten, and she adjusted so quickly. I really just applaud her for her willingness to learn. It's now always easy in the Big Ten — it's a grind for sure — but she's put up great numbers and definitely deserves (the All-Big Ten honor)."

Quade felt the same way. Fleming was, perhaps, the missing piece Illinois needed to put together one of the best seasons in program history.

"She's just come in and filled a huge role for us," Quade said. "It's really awesome to watch her kind of progress throughout the season, and she's so much fun to play with and a really fantastic teammate. We're all really lucky that everything kind of ended up how it happened."

What's on tap

Beat writer SCOTT RICHEY is in his fifth season covering Illinois volleyball, so nobody knows the program better. Here are four keys to watch today if Illinois wants to beat Marquette:

Battle up front

Marquette has Big Ten size, including 6-foot-5 outside hitter Allie Barber. The Illini's counter is one of the best middle blockers of all time in Ali Bastianelli.

Setter advantage

Jordyn Poulter gives Illinois an edge from her blocking to her ability to seek her own attacking opportunities. The latter is something she's looked for more of late.

Serve strong

Aggressive serving is a top priority for the Illini, and they rank in the top 20 nationally in aces per set. Service errors, then, are (mostly) fine as long as they're aggressive.

Adjust on the fly

The occasional slow start hasn't phased this Illinois team. The veteran leadership from Poulter, Bastianelli and Co. makes for a team capable of handling any situation.

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).