Big 12 Campus Correspondent
The off-campus home of University of Missouri softball standouts Ashley Fleming and Chelsea Thomas isn't much different from that of the typical college student: movies are watched, jokes are played, textbooks become table centerpieces. But walk into the kitchen and something goes array. A 30-piece trophy case subtly lets visitors know they are in the presence of talented athletes. Displaying everything from All-Region and All-Tournament teams, to Fleming's two USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Week awards, the kitchen is a mini-museum of Mizzou softball regalia.
The accolades have been coming all her life. Fleming, a senior from Silex, Mo., is no stranger to attention. Living in a town with only one blinking stoplight, all of her athletic triumphs became big news. Single-handedly, she kept the sports pages full. On the basketball court, Fleming scored 2,500 points and was named Lincoln County Player of the Year in each of her four years at Silex High. She was every bit as good on the softball diamond. Fleming set the Missouri single-season home run record during her junior year. She finished her career at Silex as an All-District, All-Region and All-State player and made it to the state championships in each of her four seasons.
"She is the prototypical gym rat," Missouri Softball Head Coach Ehren Earleywine says. "You can roll out any ball, make up some rules and she would find a way to win real quick."
Fleming won off the court, too; she was the valedictorian of her class. With talent and brains, she was a coaches dream, but Fleming worried she would slip through the cracks.
"I didn't know if I would get seen because you don't get seen by Division I teams when you go to a small school," Fleming said.
Her worst fear almost became reality. If not for a tip from a Missouri women's basketball assistant coach, Earleywine admits he would have never heard of Fleming. The coach called Earleywine asking him to take a look at her in hopes that it would improve the basketball team's chances of getting her to play at the university.
At the time, Fleming was making her annual pilgrimage to Columbia, Mo., for the softball state championships. Once Earleywine watched her play, it didn't take long for him to find a spot for her on the team. Fleming, who says softball has always been her first love, quickly accepted. The basketball offer never materialized.
Since coming to Mizzou, Fleming has demonstrated the key to her continued success. Among teammates and coaches, her work ethic is legendary.
"Her freshman and sophomore years, we would go get ice cream and she would bring her homework in case there was traffic on the way," Thomas says.
A student at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism, Fleming made it a priority to take academics every bit as seriously as softball. She said the decision was an easy one.
"Are you going to be an average student and get to enjoy [college life] or are your academics going to be slacking?," Fleming says. "You have to make the decision and say, ‘Hey, I'm not going to have the free time and get to do what a normal student does, but if that's what it takes.' And that's how I've always been."
Her mind has proven to be an asset in the athletic arena as well. Without question, much of Fleming's success must be attributed to her athleticism - she hit .356 with 14 home runs and 62 RBIs last season - but Fleming insists it is her mental game that gives her an edge.
"I do a pretty good job of hearing something and applying it to the physical side of the game," Fleming says. "That has given me the advantage. Some people are great athletes, but mentally don't know the game the best. I see things other people don't see."
She can't see her future. As of now, Fleming is planning to stay in Columbia next year to work at Newsy (a multisource video news analysis source) and the upstart Mizzou Network. However, her coach notes her many options - pro softball player, head softball coach, journalist - and foresees a decision looming in the future.
"She's got a lot of irons in the fire and she doesn't know which way to go," Earleywine says.
No matter the career Fleming pursues, it is safe to say her friends and family will have confidence in her. Her track record is too strong. Fleming doesn't know how to lose.
"Here is a kid who makes almost straight A's in the classroom, but she grew up on a pig farm," Earleywine says. "Kids that grow up on pig farms have common sense. Whatever she decides to do she is going to be very good at."
But first, there is unfinished business at Mizzou. Fleming and her fellow seniors are trying to become the first class in the history of Mizzou softball to make it to the World Series in each season.
Fleming can take it a step further. Her high school postseason success has her set up to accomplish the rarest of feats.
"If I can make it to the World Series all four years, I'm going to end up making it as far as you can all eight years," Fleming says.
Although she has made it to the world series in each of her four years at Missouri, Fleming has yet to win a championship to go along with her state title at Silex High. Between her bat and her roommate's arm, Mizzou has a great chance to make the final step this season.
The kitchen trophy case could make room for an addition from the Women's College World Series.