When 5-year-old Olivia Gray was offered a spot on a youth softball team, she didn’t want to play because she was afraid of failing.
But her father, Shawn, encouraged her to give the sport another chance because of his daughter’s competitive attitude. He wanted to see her play a sport where there was team and individual action, and softball included both.
One year later, Gray gave the game a fair shot, and it paid off. Initially, she was surprised when she felt so natural on the field. She knew instantly she loved the game, and it was something she wanted to keep up with.
“As a kid, I was very set in my ways,” Gray said. “If I was good at something, I kind of wanted to stick with that.”
She stuck with it, and now, in her sophomore season of college softball, Gray has the second-best slugging percentage on Pitt’s softball team at .497, nailing a team-leading 42 hits and adding seven home runs this season.
Gray’s first opportunity for a collegiate softball career came early in her first year of high school. She got a scholarship offer from Robert Morris University for a full ride.
“I was still going through that growing curve, of all that recruiting,” Gray said. “I didn’t really understand — it was actually real, it was actually happening. It was so surreal.”
Gray received offers from three schools — including Pitt — but there were a lot of schools with interest.
“I think if I waited a little bit longer, I think I would’ve gotten more offers,” Gray said. “But after my sophomore season, I knew I wanted to commit to Pitt, so I signed.”
In mid-March of her sophomore year, she decided to commit to Pitt, only 40 minutes away from her hometown of Washington, Pennsylvania. Even after two years coaching her, Pitt head coach Holly Aprile still remembers recruiting Gray in high school because she was impressed with the way Gray pushed herself.
“Olivia is a very, very tough kid,” Aprile said. “She goes all-out, all the time, and there’s no way that wouldn’t stand out to me. You can tell how passionate she was, how passionate she still is, and she’s always, always playing so hard.”
Shawn was also pleased with his daughter’s decision to play for the University of Pittsburgh because of Olivia’s intentions of heading into the medical field. He also enjoys being able to travel just a short distance to see his daughter play.
“I hear from a lot of girls that I’ve coached that they’re homesick or that they wish their parents could see them more,” Shawn said. “Having [Olivia’s] school 40 minutes away from our house, I get to go to a practice if I want to … My wife and I have been able to go everywhere, away and home, and we are extremely blessed in that.”
When Gray got to Pitt, she played in the outfield. She was a trained shortstop, but the coaches had something else in mind. This past season, Gray played third base, and became, in Aprile’s opinion, one of the best third basemen in the conference.
“It’s a really tough position and it’s really involved, particularly at the collegiate level,” Aprile said. “She is really, really good. She’s made such great improvements throughout the year, especially in learning that position.”
Looking back at her first two years, Gray’s favorite memory while playing in college was her first collegiate homerun. It was the first home ACC game of the year, and many of her friends and family were in the cold, snowy stands of Vartabedian Field. The Panthers went on to win the game 7-3, giving Gray her first ACC win.
Moving forward as a junior, Gray can’t wait to continue making memories with her friends and teammates at the school she loves.
“I appreciate my best friends, who are also my teammates, so much,” Gray said. “I’m blessed to be where I am, and I’m blessed to be wearing Pitt on the front of my jersey.”
While she may be playing in the ACC now, she never forgets where she came from. She plays for the little girl she was when she started her softball journey and for her dad — the man who fostered Gray’s love for the sport and coached her for most of her life.
“He’s always been my backbone, my supporter,” Gray said. “I mean, he still coaches me from the sidelines here at Pitt.”
Sometimes, being both a coach and a parent was a challenge for Shawn. But in the end, their time spent together engaged in the sport simply drew them closer, even though his post-game reflections weren’t as confidential as he thought.
“Whether you win or lose, you come off the field, and start making comments to your wife in the car,” Shawn said. “You’re forgetting about that little girl sitting in the back seat, listening to everything.”
Gray said her parents are going to be surprised to know that even though they may have thought she wasn’t always listening in the back seat, she really was.
“You always try not to listen to what your parents have to say after a game, but my dad was my biggest role model, so I always cared,” Gray said. “He probably thought I wasn’t listening, because I put headphones in, but I never turned on my music.”
She even used the mini-DVD player, attached to the back of the driver’s seat, as a distraction.
“Me and my brother used to put our headphones in to watch the movie, and I acted like I was watching it,” Gray said. “But the whole time I was listening to what [my dad] had to say. What he said wasn’t ever bad, but it was constructive criticism that he was always too afraid to tell me straight on, and it really helped me become a better player.”
Shawn’s influence on Gray didn’t end when she was young. He continued to coach Gray all the way through high school. With only two years left at Pitt, Shawn still sees the chance for his daughter to achieve the recognition he thinks she deserves.
“Man, I’d love to see her get that All-American status,” Shawn said. “I know she has it in her, just as much as everyone else does. As for the team goals, it would be so great to see them go all the way, to see them reach that [College] World Series.”
Aside from softball, Gray fills her schedule with other passions. She volunteers at UPMC Montefiore and UPMC Presbyterian, helping seniors and patients without any family. She is currently pursuing a degree in rehabilitation science and hoping to join the United States Air Force and become an officer. After continuing her education, she wants to serve as a physician’s assistant.
“Sometimes people think of me as just ‘Olivia the softball player,’” Gray said. “I kind of wish that wasn’t so encompassing of who I am. I wish people knew me more as ‘Olivia, yeah she plays softball, but she volunteers at UPMC and works in the nursing home over the summer.’ Know me as a human being, that I’m more rounded than just a ‘softball girl.’”