In 1982, the NCAA hosted its inaugural Women’s College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. Among the eight participating teams were the hometown Creighton Blue Jays, and at the helm of the Creighton program was a woman named Mary Higgins.
Higgins pulled double-duty that summer, combining her Blue Jay coaching responsibilities with new duties as the tournament director for the WCWS. She helmed the tournament every year until 1987, and again pulled double duty as coach/tournament director in 1986 when she led the Blue Jays back to the WCWS and their highest-ever finish, a tie for 5th place nationally.
During the finale of the 2020 NFCA Virtual Convention on December 11th, Higgins was announced as part of the NFCA Hall of Fame’s induction Class of 2021. One of the first members of the organization when it was still known as the National Softball Coaches Association, Higgins will be officially enshrined in a ceremony this coming winter.
When she received her first congratulatory call following the announcement, Higgins was enjoying a leisurely Friday evening at home. Candi Letts, a longtime Division I coach and a former Creighton player who had nominated her former coach for the Hall of Fame, called with enthusiastic congratulations. Higgins’ initial response was a simple one, and she laughed as she later recalled her first words. “‘Thanks… for what?’ was the first thing that I said,” Higgins noted.
Although she been informed a few months prior that some former players and peers were working on a campaign for her election, Higgins had not yet received official word of her forthcoming induction. Her initial reaction was disbelief, though she knew her former pupil would only have made such a call with a factual basis.
Speaking to JWOS following the announcement of her election, Higgins expressed a variety of emotions as the news of her election began to sink in. “You always hear people say that awards feel so humbling, and I don’t think you always know what they mean,” Higgins said. “But that’s really what it was, humbling and just really overwhelming. A feeling of ‘oh my goodness, I can’t believe this. This really did happen.’ It was such a thrilling affirmation of all of the work that so many people did for Creighton softball, and the journey of Creighton softball that was so important to me and to our players.
“It was incredibly affirming. Seriously humbling. And pretty darn thrilling.”
A 16-year coaching career at Creighton included 564 wins; a 1987 induction into the Blue Jays Hall of Fame; and a pair of AIAW World Series berths in addition to the two appearance in the NCAA’s version of the tournament. To this day, Higgins carries fond memories of her time leading the program but she says she is proudest of the individuals who came through her program.
“In terms of softball and the team and what Creighton softball did back then, none of that happens without the amazing, amazing players that we had and were so fortunate to recruit,” Higgins said. “We have some absolutely incredible women within our alumni. For instance, Kristen Galles was my student-manager, and you think okay, big deal. No, it’s a big freaking deal. She became one of the most renowned Title IX lawyers in the country in Washington DC, and she was a pillar for Creighton softball in her role as manager. We had some all-American players – from Mary Yori to Kelly Brookhart and many others, some players that just really stand out who all made the Ws happen. I feel very grateful for their willingness to take a chance on Creighton, to come to a private, expensive Catholic school in the middle of Nebraska to play softball.”
Some members of Higgins’ coaching tree who followed in their legendary leader’s career path include longtime Missouri State head coach Holly Hesse, the longest-tenured active head coach in Division I; Yori, who is now the head coach at Nebraska Wesleyan; Letts, now on staff at Stony Brook; and Dedeann “Dede” Pendleton-Helm, an assistant at Colorado State.
In addition to the coaching and tournament-directing portions of her resume, Higgins’ softball ties extend even further. She was the first chairperson of the NCAA’s Division I Softball Committee, the group charged with seeding and selecting the NCAA tournament field every year. Following her coaching career, Higgins moved into athletic administration and academics. She ended her time at Creighton in 2014 after thirty-nine years with the school in a variety of roles.
Since 2014, Higgins has served as the president of Marian High School in Omaha. Higgins is an alumnus and former board member of the private school for young women, and she says she thoroughly enjoys her current role and “second career”.
As time has passed over the decades since she began her career in women’s athletics, Higgins has seen exponential growth in the game of softball, growth that might not have been possible without individuals like her. “I always feel a sense of connection to [the game],” she said. “To know that I had a small part in helping, that’s rewarding. It’s very exciting to see it be bigger and better than it ever was when we first started out, or even when I was in the softball part of my career. There’s definitely a bit of pride in knowing ‘I had a role to play’ and that’s both affirming and a real heartwarming feeling.”