On verge of a historic season, Natalie Higgins is prepared for the stretch run

Natalie+Higgins+takes+a+swing+against+UIC.+Photo+Credit%3A+Tyler+Gallo

Natalie Higgins takes a swing against UIC. Photo Credit: Tyler Gallo

By Tyler Gallo, Sports Editor

In the midst of Robert Morris softball’s best season since 2015, Natalie Higgins is having perhaps the greatest offensive season in Robert Morris history. Not only is she also looking to become the only Colonial to reach 200 hits, 100 runs and 100 RBI in her career, but she is batting .435 with nine home runs and 40 RBI heading into their weekend series with Youngstown State.

While it wasn’t always softball for Higgins, who played volleyball through high school, she knew she could continue to play softball into college, dominating at Madison High School in Middletown, Ohio.

Coming to Robert Morris, the only school she toured and talked to, she fell in love with an interesting thing about the campus that made her stay.

“[RMU] was the only school that I talked to seriously about playing [softball],” Higgins said. “When I toured here, it felt like home, which was important to me. Everyone always laughs at this, but the landscape of campus is what made me come here. Everything was clean-cut, flowers were planted, any time someone asks me I say it was the landscape of campus.”

When Higgins first came to Robert Morris in 2017, Craig Coleman was the head coach, a position he had held since the squad’s inception in 1991. The team’s current coach, Jexx Varner, took over in 2018 after Coleman stepped down. Higgins remarked on Varner’s confidence in his players as the biggest philosophy change in the change of coaches.

“Not that Coach Coleman didn’t believe in us, but Coach Jexx has relayed that he will always believe in us whether it is on the field or in ten years when we are trying to get a job,” she said. “He’s helped us find who we are. That’s the most important thing, that it’s okay to be a little weird but also nobody is trying to hide who they are.”

As is the case for most athletes last season, softball’s schedule was wiped out as COVID-19 ravaged the country. The team only played a non-conference schedule to that point, playing to an 8-11 record before losing the remainder of the year. Higgins was batting .349 with three home runs, and she said losing the season was difficult.

“It happened so quickly. It was sad because we started well and some of the seniors didn’t come back [for another year],” Higgins said. “Playing the what-if game about the NEC, but also playing like we didn’t know what was going to happen was interesting.”

Higgins expressed that she had no difficulty deciding whether to return to the team for another year of eligibility, something all spring athletes in 2020 were afforded.

Part of the team’s rise to the top of the Horizon League after being in the middle of the pack in the NEC is the culture change, and Higgins stressed that as important, as well as the team always being ready to go in no matter the scenario.

The Colonials have made a tremendous turnaround from their last two seasons in the NEC and Higgins points to all the players wanting to put Robert Morris on the map as the reason for the success.

“The team wants to prove that Robert Morris is good and we can [compete] in this conference,” she said. “We all want to prove something, especially in the COVID year.”

Higgins was named to the 2019 All-NEC Second Team, and this year, she surpassed Lauren Dickinson’s career record of 42 doubles in their series at IUPUI. She also became the fourth Colonial to reach 200 career hits, joining an exclusive club with Jordan Gurganus, Jill Spargo and Jaci Timko. Higgins doesn’t pay attention to the accolades and milestones but always kept being in the record books in the back of her mind.

“When anything else in my life goes wrong, I always turn to hitting as my escape,” she said. “It makes me feel calm in game situations, and that helps me be successful. When I came here, I did think it would be nice to break records, but it’s not something I thought that I absolutely had to do.”

When the team embarked on a road trip to Green Bay late in March and lost three of four to a team behind them in the standings, getting outscored 32-10 in the three games, this proved to be a turning point of the season as the Colonials have won 13 of their last 18 games and sit fourth in the conference. Higgins pointed to this series as the day they learned to not take anyone lightly.

“A lot can happen in four games. You can dominate the first day and play terribly the next day,” Higgins said. “We have to take it game-by-game and not take any team lightly, that’s the biggest adjustment we made [after that series].”

In addition to her other accolades this season, she sits just two home runs away from tying a single-season record set by Kali Byers in 2003, and if the season ended today, she would have the highest single-season batting average and become just the second Colonial to have a .400 season, the only other being Keri Meyer’s .418 mark in 2005.

Not to be outdone, she is second in the Horizon League in batting average and home runs, only behind Kayla Wedl of UIC. She is on top of the league in RBI as well, one ahead of Wedl. Higgins spoke on how she has had success this season.

“Knowing that this will be my last season, relaxing and enjoying playing while I still can is part of that,” Higgins said. “Having that ‘last game of my career’ mentality is how I’ve had success.”

Horizon League-leading Youngstown State comes to town this weekend, and Higgins has confidence in the team for the remainder of the year.

“We need to go get it out there,” she said. “We have all the opportunity in the world to put up a good series against YSU and then make a run in the conference tournament. We’ve all been working towards that goal.”

As the season comes to a close and RMU plays into the postseason, all eyes will be on Natalie Higgins to continue her dominant final season in the red, white and blue, and the first task is the Youngstown State Penguins Friday and Saturday for a pair of afternoon doubleheaders.

You can watch the full interview with Natalie Higgins here.