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Thursday, March 30, 2023

When UF faced off with Auburn on Oct. 17, sophomore Erin Fleming made major contributions coming off the bench.

The defensive specialist had five digs and provided her team with a spark on multiple long service rallies.

Since then, Fleming has seen an increase in playing time and has been a key part of the No. 12 Gators' (19-2, 13-1 Southeastern Conference) back-row defense.

The Tigers (6-19, 1-13 SEC) come to Gainesville on Sunday for the second of this season's matchups, and Fleming will aim to provide a steady presence for the Gators passing game.

"I'm just trying to contribute wherever we need it," she said. "Whether it's passing, defense, bringing energy to the team, whatever I can do to help out."

UF coach Mary Wise has been working with her team on improving its blocking and hitting techniques throughout the season, and though the defensive specialists don't ever see the front row, they are still involved in all aspects of the game.

"Everything in volleyball starts with the pass, so we always feel like we're involved," junior libero Elyse Cusack said.

Often times, the back row can see things its front row counterparts cannot, so they have a responsibility to line up their blocks and direct traffic.

Fleming said the hardest thing she does on the court is letting her support in the back row know when it's OK to go on the attack, leaving her with more court to cover.

In practice, the Gators work hard on communication, calling every ball they play and letting each other know where they are on the court.

"We definitely got woken up after (losing to) Georgia," Cusack said. "Some things changed, and people are finally coming out of their shell. The freshmen are more comfortable. They're talking, and we're playing our best ball."

Look no further than the reliable back row for the reason why.

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Wise has called this "Cusack's team" from the beginning of the season, but Fleming has added consistent play in UF's most dependable unit.

"Erin is the consummate stabilizer," Wise said. "She may never be the reason we win a game, but she definitely won't ever be the reason we lose it."

The Tigers haven't moved in the standings - they are still in last place in the SEC - since the first meeting between the two teams, and the Gators will be looking to record their third consecutive sweep.

In Auburn, UF came out flat and fell behind in each of the first two sets before pulling away in a 3-0 (25-19, 25-16, 25-14) win.

"They do some things well, they're just not as big and physical as some teams in the SEC," Cusack said.

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