Elimination stings Missouri softball team even more with loss of Fleming

Monday, May 28, 2012 | 9:22 p.m. CDT; updated 9:55 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 28, 2012

COLUMBIA — The big blow for the Missouri softball team might be what's coming next. 

For the still stunned but young Tigers, who were knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by LSU on Sunday in the Columbia super regional, recovering will be a difficult process, especially when they remember they're losing their most potent offensive weapon.

Fleming File

Here are just a few more notes about one of the Missouri's best offensive players:

She is just the seventh player in the program to record 200 or more hits. She finished with 201 and a batting average above .340.

Her 43 career home runs put her in a tie for second place all time at Missouri with Amanda Renth. Her 16 home runs this season put her in a six-way tie for third most in a single season.

She finished her tenure as a Tiger with 173 RBIs giving her the fourth highest total for a Missouri player. Sixty-two of those RBIs came this year, which made her just two shy of Missouri's single season record. 

She scored 156 career runs, which put in her fifth all time. Her 42 career doubles put her in a three-way tie for third all time, and her 97 career walks put her in fifth at Missouri.

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This season, senior Ashley Fleming has been the Chelsea Thomas of the Missouri offense.

And as difficult as it is to imagine replacing Thomas when she leaves next season, the task of replacing Fleming in 2013 is going to be nearly as difficult. 

When discussing Fleming after his team's elimination on Sunday, Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine said new players step up to replace the old ones every season. But he has to know that whoever will be stepping in for Fleming is going to have some major cleats to fill.

At times this season, Missouri's No. 3 hitter was the Tiger's only offense. She proved that when she hit a walkoff, ninth-inning home run in the Columbia regional against DePaul that gave the Tigers a 1-0 victory and sent them to the title game. 

"It's unfortunate, but all day long you're going, 'When's Ashley up?'" Earleywine said after Sunday's games. "It's going to be tough to lose that kid, especially the way she's played these last two seasons. ... We'd like to keep her forever, but what are you going to do?"

What he is going to have to do is find a player, or probably two, that can replicate the numbers Fleming posted this season, which after looking at them seems as difficult as trying to replace those left behind by the likes of Rhea Taylor or Micaela Miner.

Fleming finished the season hitting .365, 64 points ahead of Missouri's next highest average. She hit 16 home runs, which were two more that Nicole Hudson and Kelsea Roth had combined. She led the team in at-bats, hits, doubles, RBIs, on-base percentage and other offensive categories.

She was even third on the team in stolen bases with nine, so saying she did it all doesn't feel like an exaggeration. 

But what might hurt Missouri's players and coaches even more than losing Fleming the offensive juggernaut will be losing Fleming the teammate.

Fleming was never the vocal presence of this young team, but to a player, everyone considered her a leader. She simply led by example. The lefty with the sweet swing from Silex, who thrived in pressure situations, showed young starters like Kayla Kingsley how to overcome early struggles to become a productive player. She also showed them what she believes are the truly important parts about being a Missouri Tiger. 

“I’ve been one of two people in my class who have done something nobody else has done here — made it all three years (to the College World Series), and then this year, making it to the super regionals," Fleming said tearing up after Sunday's elimination. "But I don’t think, when I look back on it, those are the things I’ll think about as much as the friendships I’ve developed.

"And just knowing that Coach E really took a chance on me because coming from a small town, and hardly anybody else was looking at me really, and just knowing what he saw in me — I really appreciate it. And knowing that he never gave up on me my freshman year when I didn’t have the year that I wanted. He just constantly worked with me, and I give him credit for pretty much all of my success.”

Earleywine has talked at length about the admiration and respect he has gained for Fleming over their four years together. Many times throughout the season he shuddered to think about where his team would be without Fleming's presence both in his batting lineup and his locker room.

Asked to discuss Thomas' disappointment over the way the season ended, Earleywine talked about Thomas' relationship with Fleming.

"I think her frustration has nothing to do with the (lack) of run support," Earleywine said. "I think her frustration is a result of she has a really really good relationship with Ashley Fleming. They were roommates together freshman year. ... And they formed quite a bond, and I think it was really hard for her knowing that Ashley wasn't going to be here anymore."

Players as important to their team as Fleming was to the Tigers, both on and off the field, are nearly irreplaceable. Losing her is both sad for Missouri fans who loved to watch her play and the teammates and coaches she played with.

Eventually, with time and the development of new players, the loss of Fleming will be overcome. But just a couple days after a painful elimination, the reality is Missouri is losing one of its all-time greats and that is going to sting for awhile.

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