The NKU men’s soccer team was at the peak of the Division II mountain in the fall of 2010. However, a larger challenge than winning a national championship awaited the Norse.
Northern Kentucky was on the verge of a move to Division I athletics. This would mean a large step up in competition for all sports, including men’s soccer.
This presented some challenges to John Basalyga, men’s soccer coach. Many of those challenges were solved with one phone call.
“It became a lot easier when you pick up a goalie like AJ Fleak,” Basalyga said. “You’re only as good as the guy that stops the ball from going in the net. The bottom line is, AJ has made the transition from Division II to Division I a lot easier.”
Fleak is wrapping up his final season at Northern Kentucky. He has five shutouts this year and 15 for his career, which is good for third all-time in program history. He is 7-4-3 with an 0.853 save percentage.
The day Fleak called turned out to be a good day for Basalyga, in his 13th season in charge of the Norse. He would receive yet another phone call.
“AJ called me at 12:00 and wanted to transfer,” Basalyga said. “Later on that afternoon, Toby (Frohlich) called me and wanted to transfer. I had recruited Toby the year before. So in one day, we got two starting goalkeepers. It’s a neat story for the kids. We went from having a young goalkeeper, a sophomore and a junior, to having two starting goalkeepers.”
NKU had the two goalkeepers that would help the program get over the growing pains of joining Division I.
Jack of all trades
Fleak wasn’t just a goalkeeper growing up in the Columbus, Ohio suburb of Sunbury.
“Back when I could run and gun, I had a good game up top,” Fleak said. “I enjoy playing on the field. I’ve played every position – sweeper, midfield, forward.”
Fleak didn’t just play every position, but played them at a high level, according to Basalyga.
“I saw him when he was 16 years old,” Basalyga said. “The first half he played goalie, the second half, at 185 pounds, he was a forward. AJ is one of the best athletes in our program. If I could get him to lose 40 pounds, he could be a forward in our program. He’s that good.”
Three times an all-Ohio selection in soccer, Fleak did a little bit of everything at Big Walnut High School. His coach, Charles Brodhead, said he was a standout even in his sophomore year of high school.
“In his sophomore year, we had him in goal for the tournament,” Brodhead said. “He was able to get us to penalty kicks. When we got to penalty kicks, he not only scored one of the goals to win it, but also make a couple big saves during that run to the regional final. He was our last kicker that year too. As a sophomore, that was huge.”
Brodhead said one of the highlights of Fleak’s high school career was a huge goal his senior year.
“In the first half he was in goal against Columbus Academy at Crew Stadium in his senior year, and he ended up tying it with a minute to go on the field on a volley,” Brodhead said. “It was just a beautiful goal.”
The decision to move Fleak to goal on a full-time basis wasn’t an easy one, according to Brodhead.
“The good thing about AJ is he can pretty much be on the field as well as in goal,” Brodhead said. “Early on, we did play him in the field quite a bit, and he scored some important goals for us. It was a difficult thing when deciding, but having him in goal and what he was able to accomplish, I don’t know if a field player would have done that for us.”
Fleak said he was glad he made the move to goalkeeper.
“The reason I went to keeper when I was younger is I didn’t like to run,” Fleak said. “I think once I transitioned into it, I enjoyed keeper the most. I like to sit back, watch, and make the key save every now and then when it needs to be done.”
The gridiron calls Fleak
However, deciding where to play on the soccer field wasn’t the only decision Fleak had to make in high school.
Fleak was the place kicker on the Big Walnut football team in high school. He was second team, all-Ohio his senior year.
“In high school, I had the opportunity to pick football or soccer to pursue in college, which I feel very blessed to have the options to do that,” Fleak said. “Coach Bas recruited me pretty hard. Everyone in my family has done soccer, so I wanted to try something different.”
So Fleak decided to put his soccer career on hold. He walked on at the University of Cincinnati. After one season in the UC football program, he decided to return to soccer.
“I enjoyed my time there,” Fleak said. “I really did. I just missed playing soccer. After a year at UC, I contacted Bas. Everything from there just fell into place. The transition from playing football to NKU was very nice and smooth. I don’t regret my decision one bit to change from football to soccer.”
Brodhead was also glad to hear Fleak was returning to soccer.
“When he was talking about kicking, I told him, ‘I want to see you on Saturdays playing for Ohio State,’” Brodhead said. “But he chose Cincinnati. I’m glad he got back to soccer. I really think that was his real niche and what he really enjoyed. You just knew whatever he decided that he was going to succeed.”
A family affair
Fleak isn’t the only player from his family to play soccer. In fact, there are four Fleak siblings that have played soccer at the collegiate level. His brother Bradan played at Wright State University, his sister Slone played at Ohio Dominican, and his sister Skylar currently plays at Bowling Green for John Basalyga’s daughter, Lindsay.
The thought of having four siblings play soccer at a high level amazes even Fleak.
“It’s crazy,” Fleak said. “I’ve got to thank mom and dad, for everything they’ve put in, for pushing us and taking us everywhere. They’re only two people with four kids. They put a lot of time in outside of what they do. So I’m very thankful for that.”
Growing up with soccer-playing siblings made for an interesting household.
“For the kids, it’s a very fun environment to be in,” Fleak said. “Everyone is pushing each other to be better. We’re very supportive of each other. It’s helped me grow up because I’ve had people around me do the same sport. We learn a lot from each other, on and off the field.”
Setting a legacy
With the end of his collegiate career in sight, Fleak hopes he and his fellow seniors have set the bar for the younger players.
Fleak has worked closely with a strengthening back line in front of him. Two of those back line players are freshmen – Calvin Murphy and Daniel Lahav. They are typically joined by sophomore Dylan Carss and senior Gavin Colton.
“The back line has done a great job,” Fleak said. “The two freshmen, they don’t play like freshmen, which is rare. They don’t make that many mistakes, and when they do, they recover and make up for their mistakes. I think in the years to come, the two center backs are going to be hard to get by. As long as they stick it out and keep working, They shouldn’t have any problem.”
Basalyga said Fleak and the seniors want to leave their mark on the program.
“He wants to set a legacy for himself and he wants a legacy for the program,” Basalyga said. “He, as well as the other seniors who are graduating want to leave the program better than when they arrived here.”
The NKU coach said he and Fleak have a special relationship.
“I like to call him a big bear,” Basalyga said. “He and I have had more fun in four years. He’s just a hell of a competitor. I’m going to miss having him around. I know I have always appreciated his efforts, as well as all of the seniors that took a chance with this program during the transition.”
Fleak said he has truly enjoyed playing for Basalyga.
“He’s a very straightforward coach,” Fleak said. “He tells you how it is whether you like it or not. That’s what I like to see in a coach. He’s very blunt and a very good coach. He’ll will you to win games. I’ve enjoyed the last four years playing under him. I really have. I’ve gotten along with him very well. He’s someone you like to play for.”
Fleak’s efforts on and off the field have already left their mark with a member of the Brodhead family.
“My youngest, he was really young,” Brodhead said. “He was about six or seven when AJ played. He remembers just how he was and he idolizes him to this day. Of all the players that I coached, that was his one player that he looked at that he really looks up to.”