After one dream melted away, Higgs now living the dream
A funny thing happened to Ali Higgs on her way to a master’s degree. She became a coach. And then a head coach. Not just a head coach, but one who has the reins of last year’s NCAA Tournament softball team.

Higgs, in the Iona College sports Hall of Fame because of her softball playing prowess, would like to tell you her new job is the culmination of a dream but she can’t. Initially, it wasn’t her dream.

“I’d like to say it is but it’s actually not,’’ said Higgs, who joined JU in 2007. “ It never crossed my mind when I was younger to coach. I was an ‘in the moment’ player and never thought about the coaching aspect. I wasn’t one of those players who soaked up all the information so I could one day take it and be a head coach.’’

What she was trying to accomplish was to get an MBA and become a small business owner in Maryland.

“Coming from Maryland I wanted own my own indoor facility, softball and baseball, because six months out of the year we had to be inside and not practice or play volleyball or basketball, that sort of thing, and I was like ‘these kids need a place to play’,’’ she said.

She moved to Florida, came to JU to be a grad assistant for then head coach Melissa Gentile and assistant Amanda Lehotek, and realized kids here played all year. The business owner idea began to melt away.

“They don’t need indoor facilities here,’’ she remembers thinking. “Beyond that I don’t know what my dream would be.’’ It didn’t take long to find out.

Gentile took another job, Lehotek got promoted and in the chain reaction Higgs all the sudden was the first assistant.

“I was kind of tossed in the coaching realm whether I liked it or not,’’ she said. “I was always up for the challenge so I absolutely wanted to do it. I got lucky to be thrown into coaching because I don’t know that it’s something I would have chosen to do otherwise but now I love it. I got the MBA three years ago and I’m still here and I can’t see myself doing anything else now.’’

Earlier this summer, Lehotek left for Texas. Director of Athletics Alan Verlander tabbed Higgs to move up another notch and now she’s running the team that made won the A-Sun title and tournament and made it to the big show last season.

“She has been a big reason for the recent success and she knows the expectations now placed on JU softball,’’ Verlander said. “She is a tireless worker and a tremendous recruiter.’’

Higgs knows it is going to difficult to duplicate the success.

“Yeah, absolutely,’’ she said. “We surprised a lot of people and put JU on the map,’’ she said. “Once you’re on the map, I know we’ve got a target on out back in conference, but I think our kids like that.’’

The map has taken a while to construct.

“For five years they’ve (the players) been wanting that and now they have it,’’ she said. “It will be interesting to see how they respond because I know every one of them would tell you they want that target on their back. They want the pressure; they want people to look up to them. We have 12 amazing returners coming back and I feel they might have the attitude of ‘been there, done that’ but it’s my job to make them better. As good as we were, it’s my job to make them better.’’

Higgs says she’s not intimidated by her new surroundings on the team’s top perch; she has a formula for success in which she believes.

“You have to put a system in place that works. We finally, after five years, found a system that works and it’s putting players in that system,’’ she said. “Finding the players that will work for you and for the team and will work under that system and then it’s all about recruiting. If I can continue to do my job and recruit players that are better than our current kids, then I’ve done my job recruiting.’’

While recruiting Higgs takes what could be a disadvantage, the school’s size, and turns it into a positive.

“We get a lot of kids in here that don’t think they want a small school, but if I can get them on campus we have shown the brighter side of a small school,’’ she said. “They get here and realize they are going to get one on one attention, they’re not going to be on a roster of 25. Here at JU you’re going to get one on one attention on the field and in the classroom. It’s a family atmosphere and a lot of kids think they don’t want that but they get here and they see differently.’’

- Jim Nasella