Valerie Higgins Steps Into Role On USA Women’s U18 National Team
When 6-foot-1 forward Valerie Higgins (Granada Hills, Calif.) was named to the 2016 USA Basketball Women’s U18 National Team on May 30, the significance of playing for USA Basketball was not lost.
“Ever since probably fifth or sixth grade and watching the Olympics, I’ve wanted to be an Olympian,” Higgins explained. “The Olympians, when they play, there is a smile on their face afterward, and you can see and you can feel the pride. Even watching at home on a TV, you can feel the sense of pride in playing for the United States of America.
“It is kind of like a tease – you are getting a little taste of what it’s like, but you are not there yet,” she said of playing for the USA U18 National Team. “It’s definitely a huge step to getting there. When they called my name as a team member, I wanted to cry, because I was so happy.”
Being named to the team was step one for Higgins in the summer of 2016. Step two was transitioning into her freshman year at the University of Southern California, which conveniently helped set her up for step three, which was returning for the USA U18 training camp from July 2-9 at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“I went to USC two days after I got back from trials, so I had been there for like three weeks before I came here for training camp,” said Higgins. “I was working with the strength and conditioning coach there, and we had some one-on-one training with Cynthia Cooper, the head coach, and team workouts and sand workouts – lots of stuff like that.
“Compared to trials, when I was huffing and puffing with the altitude and everything, this time I’m running up the court easily, as if I’m at home.”
So far, Higgins has nothing but good things to say about her transition from high school to college.
“It’s been really fun, actually. There is a lot of support at USC to make sure that everything is smooth, and I’m still close to home. Even though I’m close, I still get a little homesick and miss my little brother and my parents, but it’s been great. It’s been really easily for me.”
On top of her own work ethic, the 2016 California Interscholastic Federation Open Division Player of the Year has been helped along by family members who have shared their own experiences as college athletes.
Her father, Keith, and her mother, Sherry, played basketball at Cal State Northridge, and her father played professionally in the Philippines and China, as well as for the Harlem Comedy Kings. Her older sister, J’nai, played volleyball at Cal State Fullerton. And additionally, her uncle, Derrick Higgins, played basketball at Cal State Northridge, and her uncle, Ernie Ramirez, played baseball at UC Irvine.
“Especially since both my parents played Division I basketball, I got first hand from them what it is going to be like, because they have lived it,” Higgins said. “They gave a lot of good advice. My sister went and played Division I volleyball, so everyone in my family helped me mentally prepare for what was ahead of me.
“Their advice definitely worked. Some of the other freshmen (at USC), I was helping them out, because they were coming from far away, Florida, and South Carolina, so it’s really nice that I was able to help them out, too.”
That sharing of experiences has continued for Higgins during the USA U18 training camp, where she is alongside five teammates who are rising college freshman and six who will be going through the same process one year from now.
“We have talked a lot about college, especially the ones that are being recruited. They are asking how college is, and all of us that are in college are like, ‘Man, it’s just something that you’ve never experienced before and it’s just something that you have to experience for yourself in order to really know.
“And the ones of us that are in college, we are just talking to each other about how we feel homesick. Even now, college is our new home. We miss home now, and we miss college now that we are here.”
The homesickness is eased by the fact that Higgins genuinely enjoys her USA teammates and being around athletes with similar issues to her own life.
“it really does help to be around athletes who are like me. This team is trying to come together and be like a home-away-from-home, and we really are a family. Everyone is supporting each other going through this time.”
There are challenges, of course, especially since the USA U18 National Team will have a total of 14 days together before it takes on its first opponent, Guatemala, on July 13 – and that’s including the three days of trials before the team was named.
“Probably just being with a new coaching staff and a new group and just that adjustment,” Higgins responded when asked what has been the hardest part of USA Basketball thus far. “We have such a short amount of time having to learn all the plays and the way each person likes to play and just becoming accustomed to all the different things like that.”
The team, in Higgins opinion, is up to the challenge.
“Even from the five days that we have been here, we already have made so much progress. It’s really incredible.”
Part of that progress it that Higgins has found her role.
“Hard work and hustle, just the little things – diving on the floor, boxing out, getting rebounds. That is what I most pride myself in, is doing all of the dirty work. If I can get my team another possession, then I will do whatever I can to do that.”
On July 9, the team will depart for Valdivia, Chile, where the FIBA Americas U18 Championship will be played, and it will be Higgins’ first time traveling outside of the United States.
“I’m both excited and nervous. I’ve been talking to Lauren (Cox), because she has played for three USA Basketball teams. Listening to her talk kind of puts me at ease, because she said everything is taking care of. You really don’t have to worry about too much. I’m definitely excited to experience a new country.”
While she has been talking with Cox about what to expect in terms of travel, she has been daydreaming about what it will feel like to step on the court with USA across her chest.
“I’ve thought about lacing up my shoes, putting my USA jersey on and the tipoff – just being ready to play and giving it my all, giving it my best.
“It’s a dream come true. There is no higher honor than playing for your country.”