For the first spring in, perhaps, forever, Autumn Owen had free time in hand. Which was much needed because she had much on her mind.
A torn ACL left the former Polk County standout sidelined during Gardner-Webb’s 2021 softball season. Named the Big South Conference Preseason Co-Player of the Year, Owen expected to be building upon a stellar first two seasons with the Bulldog program. Instead, a spring of sideline support and rehabilitation awaited.
And, with that, plenty of time for some self-reflection.
“It was difficult, but I wouldn’t say that I regret it,” Owen said. “Just because I sat out and, that injury was something that many athletes end up having to do that.
“I don’t even think about it as a setback. I look at it as a learning experience. Watching my teammates grow in that time and also paying attention to me, mentally, that was a big struggle. I mean, not just, hey, I’m not playing, but it was moreso me pushing myself to be the best that I could.”
Owen ultimately decided that a new home might help her reach that goal. She decided to leave Gardner-Webb, eventually finding her new location of residence at Marshall, joining the Thundering Herd as a redshirt junior with two seasons of eligibility remaining.
The move has taken Owen to a campus some three times larger and based in a community known for its rabid support of Thundering Herd athletics. Owen recently found that out firsthand when a fan, noticing her Marshall softball T-shirt, stopped her in a restaurant to ask questions about the team and upcoming season.
The transfer has also dropped Owen into a program that she says offers everything she wants, providing almost immediate comfort despite being more than 300 miles from Polk County.
“It’s a different atmosphere than Gardner-Webb,” she said. “I thank Gardner-Webb for everything that they did for me. But I mean Marshall. . . it’s an environment that I’ve honestly been looking for. My coaches, they believe in me there. My teammates, they believe in me.
“One of the biggest things is they support their women’s teams just as much as anybody else in the country. For it to be a mid-major, it’s still like a huge, big major, and it’s taken seriously.”
Owen has also found a sense of purpose that could only be discovered on the Marshall campus. The university endured an unforgettable tragedy in 1970 when a plane crash took the lives of 75 members of the Herd football program. The memory of those lost remains strong in Huntington – and has become a source of inspiration for Owen.
“That’s what we play for, we play for those 75,” Owen said. “And it was something that I could play for bigger than myself, especially coming off of a surgery.
“It wasn’t easy making that decision to transfer. It was tough. But this place definitely filled that need that I needed.”
Owen said she never expected to leave Gardner-Webb, and no doubt the Bulldogs didn’t want to see her go. Owen appeared in 81 games at Gardner-Webb, her career .384 average fourth-best in school history. She had 19 doubles, eight triples, 17 home runs and 72 RBI and seemed destined to own several hitting and defensive records.
But the resignation of head coach Tom Cole at the end of the 2021 season, dovetailing with the introspection of her season on the sidelines, cemented her decision to leave.
“Things change, emotions change, people change, and you’ve got to do what’s best for you,” Owen said. “And after sitting down with my family and talking about it, it wasn’t easy, and the worst part was leaving my teammates. But they understood and they told me, you do what’s best for you, Autumn. So it was a new start.”
Owen couldn’t be more excited about that beginning. She’ll return to Huntington next week and continue preparing for the start of the season in February when Marshall travels to Georgia Tech for an opening tournament. The Herd’s 2022 schedule includes a handful of Power Five schools before Marshall moves into Conference USA play.
Owen will probably play both in the infield and behind the plate. No matter she lines up, she’ll no doubt have a huge smile on her face.
“Everything’s good now,” she said. “Just keep working on getting back in the rhythm.
“We have a great team, great chemistry. And I mean, we’re truly like, family-oriented. Our little slogan is brick by brick, so that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Just building a season while building a new direction.