Chad Fleming starred for a state-championship basketball team at Liberty during his senior year, as did his older brother and one of his younger sisters. It’s safe to say Blue Jays basketball is something of a family tradition and obsession.
“A lot of people sit around and play cards,” Fleming said. “We sit around and watch basketball.”
Liberty needed someone like Fleming when the school suddenly found itself without a girls’ basketball coach just before practice started in the fall.
While it was still an abrupt transition, his knowledge of the program and familiarity with the players made it much smoother — and that’s helped the Blue Jays (10-2) continue to be one of the top girls’ basketball teams in Missouri.
“Given the situation and circumstances, it’s been as good a transition as I think you could expect,” Fleming said. “With having family around the program the last 10-15 years, most of the girls knew of me and I knew of them.”
Fleming became the interim girls’ head coach Oct. 5 when Noah Simpson was placed on administrative leave.
Simpson, the Blue Jays’ coach for six seasons, resigned Oct. 26 after an investigation into “inappropriate electronic communications” with students, including a request for photographs from a former student.
It all happened just days before the start of practice Oct. 30, but Fleming was already plenty familiar with the school and the team.
He started for Liberty’s 2001 Class 4A state champions.
Fleming’s brother, Scott, started for the Jays’ 1998 state-title team, while a sister, Kara, played on the 2007 Class 5 girls’ state champions and another sister, Morgan, played in two final fours and won the DiRenna Award in 2016.
Then, there’s Jillian Fleming, a 5-foot-11 sophomore who’s a starter on this year’s Liberty team.
“Having a sister on the team, that obviously helped the transition,” Fleming said. “My job as a coach is to put everyone in situations where they can be successful. And already knowing their skill set, that obviously helps.”
Fleming knew he had one of the best players in the Kansas City area in Kayel Newland, a 5-11 senior forward who has topped 1,000 points for her career. Newland, who has committed to Illinois State, set the Blue Jays’ career three-point record last month.
But Fleming also knew he would have to surround Newland with several younger players like his sister, who had limited varsity experience, and that they would all have to adjust to the new offensive and defensive systems he introduced.
The Blue Jays struggled early, but Fleming could see the progress when they closed 2017 by winning the Rockwood Summit Holiday Hoops Classic in suburban St. Louis.
“We didn’t play great the first two rounds, but in the championship game we played really well,” Fleming said. “You started to see it kind of come together a little bit. We’re starting to do things the coaching staff’s preaching and they’re starting to buy in a little bit more every day.”
It’s carried into 2018 as well.
After beginning the new year with a 54-42 victory at Lee’s Summit on Jan. 2, Liberty won at Staley 62-44 on Jan. 5 and survived a 39-36 overtime thriller against Kansas power St. Thomas Aquinas the next day during the 810 Varsity Showcase at Aquinas.