With 20 years of Whitworth coaching experience behind her, women’s basketball head coach Helen Higgs led the Pirates in a season of success, including winning the NWC tournament against No. 1-ranked Whitman, which earned Higgs the title of The Whitworthian Coach of the Year. Higgs made her mark on Whitworth as she became the longest-serving women’s basketball coach, amassing the most wins in Pirate history.
With a career coaching record of 284-199 entering the season, Higgs and her team began the 2013-2014 season with high standards and big expectations.
“Our goals were to do more than we did the year before, which was finish third and make the NCAA tournament,” Higgs said.
In order to obtain their goals, the seniors chose the word “believe” as the season’s theme, Higgs said.
“We can do great things and we want to believe that we can do great things, but we also have fun and laugh at the obstacles while pushing through them,” Higgs said.
The season started rough due to injuries in which senior guard Kayla Johnson had to miss the first game because of a bad ankle sprain and junior Kendra Knutsen had limited minutes from previous knee issues, Higgs said.
“Our first game was against a team that wasn’t great and we barely won,” Higgs said. “I had to start two people out of position and we didn’t have our senior leader [Johnson] who usually ends up scoring 19 points a game.”
As the season went on, the Pirates picked up momentum with two separate seven-game winning streaks. As part of the second streak, Higgs became the first women’s basketball coach to reach her 300th career win at Whitworth, against Pacific Lutheran University.
“There is no way [Higgs] would say her 300th win was her biggest season highlight because she is very modest and team-oriented but it was a big moment for her,” assistant coach Heather Bowman said.
One of the biggest highlights for Higgs was in the NWC Tournament championship game during which the Pirates played against Whitman, then undefeated and top-ranked team in the nation, to consecutively win the conference title on Whitman’s home court, Higgs said.
“We are a pretty self-motivating team, but before the Whitman game, [Higgs] rapped for us and her quirkiness got us pumped up,” Johnson said. “During a timeout in around the last two minutes of the Whitman game the same song [Timber by Pitbull featuring Ke$ha] came on and she was telling us that it was fate that we would win the game since it was the song she rapped to us before.”
The Pirates entered the NCAA tournament against George Fox University and came away with a 20-point win in the first round.
“[Higgs] has confidence in us and you can see that in the way she coaches and directs us,” Johnson said. “She has never doubted us.”
A six-point loss to Whitman in the second round of the NCAA Tournament ended the season for the Pirates.
Higgs brings laughter and fun to the sport while keeping up the intensity. She is not only a coach on the court, but outside of the game as well, Johnson said.
“[Higgs] does a very good job of keeping the team balanced by pushing the girls on and off the court,” Bowman said. “She makes sure that they are academically, personally and aesthetically improving themselves.”
Higgs does not attribute all of the success from the season to herself, but rather to her fellow coaches and the players on the team, Higgs said.
“I think valuing your coaching staff, figuring out what they do well and giving them some freedom in that, is what really helps to make a team stronger and be more successful,” Higgs said. “We were successful because I had a great coaching staff.”
After another successful season, Higgs assures that with her competitive nature, winning will always be a part of the program, Higgs said.
“But it is more about striving for excellence and teaching individuals how to excel not only in sports but in every place in life,” Higgs said. “That’s my bigger goal, to teach those life lessons, and if you do that well and have the talent, then the winning part will take care of itself.”
Jordanne Perry Staff Writer