Every time Olivia Grey gripped a softball this season, she was like a writer holding a pen.
Grey and Portland State ended up authoring the ultimate comeback tale.
On April 9, the Vikings had lost 21 of 25 games they played. At 1-7, they were dead last in the Big Sky Conference.
Then everything changed.
With Grey often in the pitcher’s circle, Portland State won seven of its last 10 regular season games.
Then, last week, the Vikings went 4-0 at the Big Sky Tournament, becoming the first No. 5 seed to win the conference championship.
Now Portland State (15-24) is headed to Seattle for the NCAA Regionals for the first time since 2013. The Vikings, No. 16 Washington (41-11), No. 20 Michigan (36-6) and Seattle U. (29-19) will vie in a double-elimination tournament for a berth in the Super Regionals.
The Regionals berth marks a big turnaround not only for Portland State, but for Grey. The redshirt freshman from Woodland has conquered not only the leap to Division-I softball, but also her own struggles with self-doubt.
In helping her rise to those challenges, Grey credits not only her teammates but her willingness to seek help from two sports psychologists.
“It was the best decision I’ve ever made as an athlete,” Grey said.
A ‘big low’
Grey is not used to losing. She led Woodland to back-to-back 2A state championships in 2018 and 2019, winning 2A Player of the Year both seasons. Her senior year, she allowed just 28 base hits in 27 games and had an ERA of 0.05.
So she was not used to where she found herself and Portland State after a loss to Southern Utah on April 9. Pitching in relief with sporadic starts, Grey was 1-6 with a 10.05 ERA.
But Grey had been dealing with more than just on-field adjustments. The isolation of COVID-19 protocols was taking its toll. To make life more stressful, her mother had been hospitalized following a health scare.
“I hit this big low,” Grey said.
Grey sought out two sports psychologists. One, she said, focused deeply on her personal life, helping her build genuine confidence.
“As pitchers, we’re supposed to be the face of confidence,” Grey said. “If you don’t have that, you fake it until you make it. When that runs out, what’s left? It was an empty feeling.”
The other psychologist adjusted her approach to pitching. Grey honed her mentality to where she doesn’t get as easily rattled after a hit or a walk.
“You have to make sure one small mistake won’t impact you for a long period of time,” Grey said. “When it’s high pressure, it’s easy to think two or three pitches ahead instead of just being in the moment.”
In striving to be her best, Grey would too often compare herself to those in the NCAA’s biggest conferences.
“It’s really easy to want to compare yourself to a Power Five pitcher,” Grey said. “But at the end of the day, that’s not me and they’re not me. I’m going to work on reaching my full potential. When I’ve been focusing on me, I’m successful.”
On April 10, Grey pitched Portland State to just its second win in nine Big Sky games. Her stats were good but not mindblowing — four earned runs, seven strikeouts and seven walks in a 10-4 victory over Southern Utah.
But that was the start of the turnaround. Grey allowed no earned runs in three of her next four starts, solidifying her spot as the No. 1 pitcher heading into the Big Sky Tournament.
The team as a whole was also beginning to gel. Big Sky teams in states with looser COVID restrictions had been working out together for months longer than Portland State, which had its first practice in January.
Through the team’s struggles, Grey said she and her teammates became closer.
“This team is full of love,” Grey said. “You can offer corrections and the other people won’t take it too hard. We are the epitome of a team that plays for each other.”
Grey pitched a two-hit, complete-game shutout in Portland State’s opening game of the Big Sky tournament, a 4-0 win over No. 4 seed Northern Colorado on May 13.
Later that day, Grey threw a four-hit complete game as the Vikings knocked off top-seeded Weber State 2-1.
The next day, Portland State reached the final by beating Southern Utah 6-5 in a nine-inning thriller. Grey’s teammates picked her up, rallying from a 4-2 deficit to force extra innings.
Facing Southern Utah again in the championship game, Grey allowed just one run while the Vikings offense punched its way to an 8-1 win.
In four tournament games, Grey had an ERA of 1.47 and held opponents to a .200 batting average.
The competition will be tougher this weekend in Seattle, starting with a first-round game against Washington at 7:30 p.m. Friday. But however this weekend goes, Grey and Portland State already feel like they’ve won.
“Collectively, we have nothing to lose,” Grey said. “There’s no pressure.”