Diane Higginbothem was in disbelief when she met with Maryland volleyball coach Steve Aird in 2014, as he was recruiting her daughter, defensive specialist Samantha Higginbothem.
Higginbothem, who is listed at 5-foot-2 and was born with scoliosis, hadn’t received much Division I attention. Other college coaches had misled her older siblings in the recruiting process, her mom said. So the Middletown High School senior was content with signing for Division III Stevenson despite an offer from Valparaiso and the opportunity to walk on at other low-level Division I schools.
ABOVE: Samantha Higginbothem completes a dig for Maryland in a 2016 match.
Her mom dismissed the notion Aird would be interested.
“Her mom … looked at me like I was an evil human being,” Aird said. “She thought I was joking. But I wasn’t. I knew she was good enough.”
Aird, a new head coach at the time, had spotted Higginbothem months earlier at a late-night club volleyball practice making hard-nosed defensive plays. He was eager to convince her mom he truly wanted her to become a Terp.
It wasn’t an easy sell.
“You’re a volleyball coach, you have a bottom line, and I have my daughter’s best interest at heart,” Diane Higginbothem told Aird. “I’m not on your side. I’m on Sam’s side.”
“I’m on Sam’s side, too,” Aird responded.
By the end of their meeting, Samantha Higginbothem’s mom shared Aird’s vision. Three-and-a-half years later, she says she’s grateful her daughter chose to come to College Park.
Higginbothem finished her Maryland career last month after playing in 112 matches.
She notched a career-high 15 digs in Maryland’s five-set loss last year to Illinois. Twice she completed five digs to help the Terps pick up victories in her senior season, surrounded on the court by members of Aird’s back-to-back ranked recruiting classes.
When Aird handed Higginbothem a framed Maryland jersey before the Terps’ Senior Night win over Northwestern on Nov. 24, her teammates delivered a loud round of applause for the work she put in. The victory over the Wildcats capped off the Terps’ best season in Higginbothem’s four years with the team, as she helped Maryland volleyball go from finishing 11 games under .500 her freshman year to posting a winning record her senior year, all while playing in the difficult Big Ten.
“She’s not some random token local kid that I wanted on the roster,” Aird said. “She can play the game.”
ABOVE: Samantha Higginbothem serves the ball for Middletown High School in 2013. (Courtesy of Diane Higginbothem)
Soon after Aird joined Maryland volleyball in late January 2014, he visited Woodrow Wilson High School in Northwest Washington, D.C., to scout middle blocker Hailey Murray and outside hitter Liz Twilley as they practiced for Metro Volleyball Club of D.C.
But during the low-stakes weeknight session, Higginbothem impressed Aird by aggressively diving for balls and controlling first passes. When she mishit a serve out of play, she berated herself, signaling to Aird the level of competitiveness she could bring to his program.
At the end of the two-hour training period, Aird asked the Metro Volleyball coach where Higginbothem would play in college. He was shocked when she told him Higginbothem was uncommitted and looking at Division III options.
“For two hours, I saw her go after every single ball, play as hard as anyone I’ve seen play, period,” Aird said. “I knew when I was going to be trying to build a program, you need people like that who compete like crazy. I mean, it was a random weekday night practice, and no one in the building played harder than she did.”
“It was a random weekday night practice, and no one in the building played harder than she did.”
—Maryland volleyball coach Steve Aird on his first meeting with Higgenbothem
So, Aird met with Higginbothem — as well as Murray and Twilley — to talk about his vision for Maryland and their potential part in it.
Higginbothem didn’t understand why she was included in the conversation. Later, she laughed when her club coach told her Aird was serious about offering her a place on his roster. But she still called him the next day to confirm.
Aird respected Higginbothem’s preference for Stevenson and didn’t push her to change her mind. Because the talk was casual and absent of promises, Higginbothem didn’t tell her parents about Aird’s interest. But Diane Higginbothem found out when Twilley’s parents asked for her opinion of Maryland.
“Uh, what’re you talking about?” Higginbothem said to Twilley’s parents.
“Then I talked to Sam about it and she totally blew it off,” she recalled. “We didn’t really take it seriously, you know? We just thought he was a big-time coach and he just was desperate for players or something.”
When Stevenson offered less scholarship money than expected, Samantha Higginbothem decided to visit College Park. It didn’t take long for her to realize the program could make a personal impact while assisting her on-court development.
“[Aird] kind of gave me more confidence in myself, in who I was as a player, because he said all these good things about me that I hadn’t heard from people in his position,” Higginbothem said. “He believed in me, so I was like, ‘Okay, I guess I can try it out.’”
ABOVE: Samantha Higginbothem with her two siblings, Gary and Ashley, in 2012. (Courtesy of Diane Higginbothem)
As Higginbothem, then 9 years old, peered at a Frederick volleyball club team flier, she decided she’d try out. If her older sister Ashley Black was going to attend, Higginbothem would, too.
Higginbothem’s mom, however, said the original point of letting her try out was to teach her that her older siblings would sometimes be able to do things she couldn’t. She didn’t expect her daughter to make a team.
“That was pretty foolish thinking,” she said.
Despite the scoliosis that had caused her chronic pain since birth, Higginbothem made an under-14 team. And despite being, in her mom’s words, “like the team mascot that year,” that experience proved Higginbothem’s condition wouldn’t limit her from competing alongside her sister at a high level.
Volleyball brought the two sisters closer together. If Black didn’t have practice, she would pay Higginbothem a nickel to play pepper with her in the yard of their house, advancing her skill set and ultimately helping her compete at Charleston Southern.
Those sessions also improved Higginbothem’s skills, so that she quickly became one of the best on her club team. When she was a freshman in high school, she was called up from the junior varsity squad to play with her sister on varsity during the playoffs.
Higginbothem’s determination drove her past the level Black reached in college. Aird praised her for succeeding in the Big Ten despite lacking the size, speed and touch of most volleyball players in the conference.
“Some people in life, they have all the excuses in life why they can’t achieve things, and she’s the opposite,” Aird said. “She proved she belonged.”
ABOVE: Samantha Higginbothem serves for the Terps in 2016. She played in 112 career matches. (Courtesy of Maryland Athletics)
Maryland led Liberty, 14-13, in the fifth set on Aug. 30, 2014. It was Aird’s second match as a head coach, and Higginbothem’s second match at the college level. But when the Flames called a timeout ahead of match point, Aird trusted the unranked recruit he discovered by chance to deliver in the clutch.
“You’re going to take care of this for me, right?” Aird asked across the huddle to the 5-foot-2 defensive specialist he substituted in to serve.
“Yeah,” Higginbothem replied bluntly.
Her subsequent serve landed for an ace to win the match.
Aird noted Higginbothem’s fearlessness in not only producing in a big moment but also in showing no reservations about entering the game. Her serve supplied a narrow win against Liberty, one of only 10 Maryland victories in 2014.
This season, the Terps swept the Flames with ease.
“The youngsters in this [program], they don’t know any better, they just assume they should be in the tournament conversation every year,” Aird said. “But for [Murray and Higginbothem], they’ve seen it when we got here and when it wasn’t pretty. And they’re a big part of the reason it’s turned into something where top recruits all over the country want to come here now.”
Aird counted on Murray and Higginbothem to set an example for his team over the past four seasons. He wanted their work ethics to influence other players and lay the groundwork for the team’s culture.
Aird acknowledged Higginbothem wasn’t an elite player like some of her teammates, but he said she never took a day off. Higginbothem said while the new recruits are talented, they need an adjustment period to the way the team operates, so she shows them what levels of effort and communication are required.
Outside hitter Gia Milana said Higginbothem set the tone when she goes after a ball in practice other players might deem out of reach. It forces Milana to work harder for the next ball. Right before Aird breaks out of a huddle during matches and play resumes, Higginbothem often tugs on Milana’s jersey to let her know she has a piece of insight.
“She’s always trying to help me and the people around her,” Milana said, “giving us small pieces of advice because she knows so much about the game.”
ABOVE: Samantha Higginbothem and her family prior to the Terps’ straight-sets win against Northwestern on Nov. 24. (Courtesy of Maryland Athletics)
After Higginbothem and her family took center court before Maryland’s season finale against Northwestern, she received flowers, a framed jersey and a photo with Aird. Then, she went and stood next to her sister on the baseline.
While attention shifted away from Higginbothem as the announcer introduced Murray, Higginbothem held her framed No. 3 jersey, a lasting memento of her service to the Terps. She leaned her head on Black’s shoulder as Black placed her arm around her little sister. It was a rare sentimental scene for Higginbothem, an otherwise stoic character.
“That was her way of expressing an emotion,” Black said. “That this was an emotional night and that this just wasn’t another game, which is what she would probably tell everyone else.”
The moment was fleeting. Higginbothem took her place in line for Maryland’s standard starting lineup introductions and notched two digs as the Terps marched to a straight-sets victory. The win put them on the edge of NCAA tournament consideration, but they missed postseason play for the 12th consecutive season as one of the first four teams out.
A journey that began with Higginbothem’s admiration for her sister ended with her spending four years on a Big Ten team and Black looking up to her for all she’d achieved. She went from the unheralded recruit found hustling at a midweek practice to the spiritual leader at Maryland.
Higginbothem helped flip the script for the Terps, who finished Aird’s first season in charge ranked No. 150 in RPI. They ranked No. 52 in the final RPI poll after going 18-14 this year.
“I kind of saw senior night as the culmination of that,” Black said. “Her love of the game and the love that she has for her teammates, I think that that’s Big Ten-level worthy.”
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated Aird was in disbelief when he met Diane Higginbothem in 2014. Higginbothem was in disbelief when she met Aird. Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story also incorrectly stated Samantha Higginbothem went to center court after receiving flowers, a framed jersey and a photo with Aird. She went to center court before that. This story has been updated.