Some of their conversations are carried out in code — a series of secret hand signals passing between Osbourn Park outside hitter Carly Fleming and all-state setter Helen Theisen.
After six seasons as teammates, spoken words aren’t always necessary.
Ideas can be conveyed with body gestures and knowing glances.
“I don’t think I could have another setter,” Fleming said. “I always want Helen to be my setter. We have a really good chemistry. She knows where to set me.”
A relationship that began in sixth grade at Parkside Middle School has evolved this season into something extraordinary.
They are friends who like to go shopping and sometimes watch movies together and, on the court, they have a connection that has helped the Yellow Jackets capture consecutive Cedar Run District championships.
“We’ve made it a point to play on the same team together,” said Theisen, a three-year starter at OP who has also played alongside Fleming on three Clash club teams. “I’ve known her a long time. She’s funny and so much fun to be around.”
Fleming, it should be noted, is also quite versatile.
At 5-foot-11, she once thought her future would be in basketball. She used to play pickup games with her older brother, Chris, in the family’s backyard and participated in league play until she was 14.
Then she discovered the Clash Volleyball Club.
“Basketball was my favorite sport until volleyball,” said Fleming, who has already received recruiting interest from Wake Forest, Georgetown and Bradley among others.
“When I started playing club I really started to like volleyball because I got better at it,” she said. “Clash changed me. The 14s season taught me more about volleyball. After that season I said, ‘no more basketball.'”
The Yellow Jackets (20-3) are thankful she made that choice. Fleming made her varsity debut as a freshman and she’s been part of the rotation ever since — this season moving successfully from the middle to outside hitter.
“At first I was like, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never played outside before.’ I was nervous I wasn’t going to do good,” said Fleming, who earned first-team all-district honors on Monday.
The inspiration to move Fleming came to Jackets coach Kate Southcott in early September. Things were getting crowded in the middle with senior Carola Hernandez emerging as a starter and freshman Tori Price making a great impression at tryouts.
“Tori’s been doing amazing this season and the same with Carola,” Fleming said.
Southcott thought so too and she wanted to find a place for all three players on the court so she asked her strongest hitter to learn a new position.
“I just thought we’re a better team with Tori in the middle than we are with Tori on the bench,” Southcott said. “Carly kept saying ‘no, no, no’ because she was afraid to switch at first. But right before showcase, she came up to me and said she liked playing outside and wanted to play there.
“It’s not an easy position. Every time Carly’s up there swinging, she makes it look easy.”
After attending Pepperdine volleyball camp, where she played beach volleyball and grass volleyball but rarely stepped foot indoors, Fleming is averaging 10.1 kills per match and is second behind fellow outside hitter Lori Race in total kills with 232.
“The only thing I wish for Carly in her game is more confidence,” Southcott said. “At her worst, she’s better than a lot of people’s best.”
Doubting her own ability is an issue that Fleming began to address before the season began. One of her stated team goals was to put mistakes behind her and keep swinging. Race, another close friend, has helped her accomplish that.
“Lori’s always giving me advice on my approach,” Fleming said. “She’s showed me a lot.
“Middle is really quick. You have to be at the net as soon as Helen touches the ball. But on the outside I start my approach really, really far back. A lot of it is timing. I’m usually early because I’m used to middle.”
In just over two months, Fleming has shed some of those middle hitter instincts. She had 17 kills in a non-district victory at Woodbridge and led the Yellow Jackets with 16 in last week’s district tournament championship victory at Fauquier.
“I’ve always known her as a middle. The idea to put her on the outside was brilliant,” Theisen said. “She’s excelled on the outside. Now I can’t see her back in the middle.”