In March 2020, Nebraska senior softball pitcher Olivia Ferrell saw on Twitter that her season was canceled. Afterward, she immediately started mourning what could have been.
In the span of a few weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic had taken away her junior year of collegiate softball, just when she said she was getting good.
Ferrell had visions for her junior season, it was to be one of wins and stellar pitching performances, but in that moment, all was taken away. In its place, she found questions surrounding the future.
“It was so surreal,” Ferrell said. “Within a couple hours, it went from no fans to no season at all.”
Ferrell, who is from Omaha, started playing softball at 8 years old, and began pitching at 9. She said she immediately fell in love with the game and felt it was where she belonged. She joined the Nebraska Gold Softball team before playing for Elkhorn South High School.
“You could see her talent, work ethic and passion for softball from the start,” now-retired Elkhorn South softball coach Terry Graver said. “I knew she would go far.”
At the same time Ferrell started softball, she also pursued another sport: hockey. She played hockey until her senior year of high school and was inspired by her brother Matt, who also played.
“I wanted to be like him because I looked up to him when it came to sports,” Ferrell said. ”Hockey was a winter sport, and softball was in the summer, so they worked well together.”
Ferrell, a standout goalie, competed for the St. Louis AAA Blues girls hockey team, whom she traveled with while softball was in its off-season. Although she loved competing in both sports, Ferrell said that softball was always her number one.
“Traveling for both was sometimes hectic, but I didn't know any different,” Ferrell said. ”Softball was what I was best at, but I also had so much fun with hockey.”
Described as a fiery talent on the mound, it was no surprise when Ferrell caught the eye of college recruiters early on in her high school career. When Ferrell was a freshman at Elkhorn South in 2014, the NCAA rules allowed girls to be actively recruited at any age; it was not until 2019 that this rule changed to September of their junior year.
While Ferrell wanted to get the attention of any competitive softball program, she said she had actually never considered Nebraska. That is, until Nebraska offered Ferrell a spot on the softball team after watching her pitch at some travel tournaments. Ferrell committed to play softball for Nebraska the summer before her sophomore year.
“After looking more into Nebraska, I absolutely loved it,” Ferrell said. “It was close to home and had the best staff and facilities. I knew the program would make me a better player.”
According to Ferrell, this decision was not easy, as it meant that she had to pull back on her hockey endeavors. Before committing to Nebraska for softball, Ferrell had considered playing college hockey, and even had offers, but she ultimately decided on softball.
Instead of quitting hockey altogether, she instead transferred to the Lady Lancers team in Omaha. She could still play hockey until her senior year, thus allowing Ferrell to focus on softball more and not have the burden of traveling.
“Olivia was a phenomenal hockey player,” Graver said. “She was fast and athletic, just as she is with softball. But I always knew when it came down to it, her heart was with softball.”
While the pressure of finding a school to commit to was gone, Ferrell had a new purpose in high school: to get as good as she possibly could before college. This mindset helped lead her high school team to its first state title her senior year.
“She had a lot of success all four years at Elkhorn and helped our team greatly,” Graver said. “She is special both as a person and player.”
Hot off her fairytale high school career ending, Ferrell was ready to make a statement in the collegiate scene. After a 5-0 start as a Husker, her debut season was cut short due to a left shoulder injury. This shoulder issue continued into her sophomore year, causing her not to perform as well as she had anticipated.
“I didn't know how hard it would be to train with it. I didn't want to do too much but also wanted to do enough to get playing time.” Ferrell said.
From this disappointment in her performance, Ferrell made a mental shift to just ‘suck it up’ and push through the pain going into her junior year. She said this stemmed from her competitive spirit and desire to be a starter on the mound.
“I still sometimes have shoulder issues, but I just learned how to deal with it.” Ferrell said
This mental shift forced her to train harder than she ever had leading up to her junior season.
Ferrell was ready. So, when her team's season got cut short due to COVID-19 right before their home opener, it was all the more heartbreaking, she said.
“It was so hard because it was the first time since freshman year that I was performing well, and then it was just gone,” Ferrell said. “It was also weird because I knew I had another year, but it was especially intense for those seniors who didn't know it was going to happen.”
Ferrell said in the weeks after, her team was confused and didn't know what to do. They continued to have conversations over Zoom so they did not feel lonely.
After her junior season ended abruptly, Ferrell thought her senior year would be her last. She had her eye on the graduate assistant position for the Nebraska softball team and planned to take that upon graduation.
Ferrell continued where she left off from 2020 and performed so well that the coaches asked her to come back and take her COVID year. Ferrell was hesitant at first, knowing how important the GA position was, but the coaches were willing to hold it for her so she could take it after one more season as an athlete.
“My senior year, when there was such limited play, it just didn't feel complete,” Ferrell said. “I didn't feel like I was done. I felt like I deserved a year to pitch like I knew I could pitch. “
After graduating last fall with a degree in psychology, Ferrell is now in a two-year graduate program to get her masters in educational administration.
While Ferrell is excited by the prospect of coaching next fall, her sights are set on the rest of the current season. Ferrell said she looks forward to seeing how far her team will go and attributes their success so far to the team chemistry.
“We love to win and compete and play for each other.” Ferrell said. “We are out there wanting to not play for ourselves but for each other and for Nebraska. We are having a lot of fun.”
Despite COVID-19 taking away her junior season, she is grateful for the opportunity to have an extra year. For Ferrell, everything happens for a reason.
“I've had a great experience at Nebraska,” Ferrell said. “I have a degree, and I've met a lot of great people. With softball, I'm finally reaching where I want to be, and that's why I am so glad I took my COVID year so that I could finally meet those athletic goals.”