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Former Rebels star Higgs gets call to Iona hall

April 22, 2011|By DAN KAUFFMAN | kauffman@herald-mail.com
  • Hagerstown native Ali Higgs, a former softball star, will be inducted into the Iona College Sports Hall of Fame in June.
Submitted photo

Ali Higgs’ softball résumé stands out on its own.

Higgs was a two-time All-Washington County Pitcher of the Year at South Hagerstown in 2000 and 2001. She was part of the Frederick Heartbreakers 18U Red travel team that finished ninth at the 2002 ASA A Nationals. And she was named the 2004 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Player of the Year at Iona College, where she holds several career pitching and hitting records.

On June 6, Higgs — currently an assistant coach at Jacksonville University — will be inducted into the Iona College Sports Hall of Fame. She earned the honor in her first year on the ballot.

And it all started the way many sports journeys do — playing catch in the backyard.

“I just really want to thank my family. Without them, I don’t think I even would have played softball,” Higgs said during a telephone interview. “They’ve been my support system my whole life. I do not think I would have played softball without the support, dedication and many hours they spent with me. I wouldn’t have made it through my career without them. So many times, Dad (Larry Kershner) and I would have fights, and Mom (Barb Kershner) would drag us back out to the backyard. Without their support and belief in me, none of this happens.”

Higgs played youth baseball growing up before making the switch to softball. She saw limited action in right field for the Rebels in her freshman year in 1998 — South Hagerstown reached the state final that season — and on the bus ride back, coaches Sabrina McCoy and Debbie Hamby suggested something radical.

“They pulled me aside and told me, ‘Next year you’re a sophomore and we have no pitching. We need you to pitch,’” Higgs recalled. “I wanted nothing to do with it at all. Dad was all about it, but I wanted nothing to do with it. They kind of forced me to do it, and now I’m thankful for them giving me the opportunity to pitch and having faith in me.

“That was the turning point as far as high school was concerned. There was a great support system around me and they believed in me and kept me in games even when I threw the pitch over the backstop or through the catcher’s legs.”

Higgs was a quick learner. She was the best pitcher in Washington County her junior and senior seasons — posting a 0.38 ERA with 215 strikeouts in 140 1/3 innings her senior season while hitting .455 with six homers to boot.

She credits her time in the Heartbreakers organization under coach Terry Burdette for preparing her for her collegiate career.

“Coach Burdette gave me the tools it would take to be a Division I athlete,” Higgs said. “He took what he saw in me and he molded me — pitching, hitting and defensively. I think he took this raw athlete and made me what he thought I’d need to be to be recruited.

“I wasn’t the best athlete, and by far wasn’t the best pitcher, but being put in that atmosphere of competition with great athletes made me better.”

Higgs became arguably the most decorated player in Iona history. She is the all-time leader in at-bats (522) and tied for the all-time lead in hits (164) while ranking second in home runs (17). In the circle, she holds the program records for appearances (96), victories (51), ERA (1.34), strikeouts (512) and shutouts (13). She was a two-time Louisville Slugger/NFCA All-Northeast Region first-team selection.

“What clicked was the group of athletes ... we were just rowdy and competitive and super intense,” Higgs said. “I don’t know if we had the best athletes on the field ever, but you couldn’t convince us otherwise. When we stepped on the field, we thought we were going to win and we had that swagger and attitude. We just set the tone as a class and we said, ‘This is what we’re going to do, this is how it’s going to be, and every time we step on the field, we’re going to win.’”

Higgs briefly played professional softball before taking an assistant coaching job at Jacksonville University in 2007. She said the transition from playing to coaching has been challenging.

“As a coach, you want to win but you can’t physically do it, so I try to give that competitiveness to my athletes, whether it’s through drills or talking to them about the mental aspect of the game,” Higgs said. “On the recruiting end, you’re not always recruiting the best athlete, but someone who will run through walls and wants to win at any costs. That’s what you look for, is what kid out there will have the dirt on the uniform and on their face.”

Higgs said it was “a shock” when she learned she would be inducted into the Iona College Sports Hall of Fame — joining, among others, legendary men’s basketball coach Jim Valvano, who coached at Iona before winning a national title at N.C. State.

“It just wasn’t something that was in the forefront of my mind,” Higgs said. “I was always a day-to-day player and never thought ahead. I know a lot of kids dreamed of playing in the Olympics or playing pro ball, and I was always more in the moment. It was the result of my career, and that’s why I was shocked, just because it’s something I never thought about.”

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