Gator libero Fleming goes from walk-on to counted on
Published: Wednesday, December 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 30, 2010 at 5:23 p.m.
Four years ago, Florida volleyball coach Mary Wise made a recruiting stop at the home of Lake Highland Prep senior Erin Fleming. Her pitch was short and sweet, but involved one wrinkle.
What: First round
Who: South Carolina State (17-22) vs. Florida (27-1)
Where: O'Connell Center
When: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
"Mary presented a really hard offer to turn down," Fleming said. "They had everything that I was looking for in a school, besides the scholarship."
Wise had already filled her available scholarships, including one to Fleming's teammate since middle school, Callie Rivers. After some soul-searching, the libero decided to follow her heart to Gainesville as a walk-on.
"A lot of people perceive walk-ons as bottom of the barrel," she said.
"That's hard. You just want to come in and prove to everyone that you deserve to be here and you're going to work just as hard as they do whether you're on scholarship or not."
Fleming's situation was never easy. She stepped into a Gator team that featured Elyse Cusack, one of the best liberos in program history who finished her career as the SEC all-time leader in digs. Fleming's only chance to get on the court was at right-back or a substitute server for the team's outside hitters.
"It was frustrating at times, but I had to keep in mind that every day I came into practice, I had to compete," she said. "I wanted to play and I wanted to be on the court and I found ways."
Fleming's break finally came this season, following Cusack's graduation. With the team suddenly short-handed after an injury to freshman Taylor Unroe, Wise had few reservations about handing her backcourt over to Fleming.
"Erin's determination has been outstanding ever since she got to this campus," Wise said. "She's always put in the work and never complained. She probably had the best spring of any player we've ever had here. She's earned everything she's gotten at Florida."
Fleming was given a scholarship for her junior season, but agreed to give it back prior to her senior season when the team needed it to reload with a stellar group of freshmen and transfer players. Ever the team player, her only concern was a few hundred miles from campus, back in Orlando.
"I was never worried about the playing time or anything like that," she said. "It was more about the financial hardship on my family. That was tough. But my parents (Wendy and Craig Fleming) are great and they've supported me all of the way through this and always believed in me. That's what kept me going."
That motivation kept her in Gainesville over summers, working on her game and conditioning and preparing for the day when she'd get the call from the bench.
"I was busting my butt through workouts, running through Summer A and lifting a little extra weight. Those were the tough times," she said. "Especially when you're not getting on the court and you're like, 'Gosh, really? How much harder can I push myself?' But I decided there were no boundaries. Let's see how much further I can go."
With Friday's first round of the NCAA tournament looming, Fleming has already gone further than most of her competition. She went from weighing scholarship offers from Rollins, UCF and the University of Tampa to logging a team-high 348 digs for the top squad in the country. She's also left her mark on a crop of newcomers that hopes to build on the momentum she helped start.
"Erin's work ethic is amazing," freshman setter Chanel Brown said. "She comes out and practices, plays hard and competes every day. Everything she goes through, she gives it 110-percent every time. I've learned so much from her."
Already finished with classes and her internship, Fleming is set to graduate in December with a degree in Recreation and Event Management. But until then, she's looking to just enjoy the situation she's currently in.
"I take a step back sometimes and I'm like, 'Wow,' " she said. "I'm having so much fun and we're number one. This can't get any better."