BY TIM MORRIS
ERIC SUCAR staff Ashley Higginson graduates as one of the top distance runners in state history. Ashley Higginson’s high school career was already off the charts. The Colts Neck senior had already won a record-tying three NJSIAA Indoor Meet of Champions 3,200-meter titles and had anchored the girls 4×1-mile relay team to back-to-back national titles. During the cross country season, she was the undisputed leader of perhaps the finest team in state history. The Cougars won the NJSIAA Meet of Champions title with Higginson finishing second and running the fourth-fastest time in Holmdel Park history (17:50). That helped them get invited to the Nike Team Nationals in Portland, Ore. There, Higginson slogged through a muddy course, winning the race and leading the Cougars to a fourth-place finish, the best-ever placing by a Garden State team.
Yet, when she was circling the 200-meter New York Armory track in March at the National Scholastic Indoor Championships, Higginson was taking her running to another level. Not only was she on her way to her first individual national championship and a state record (10:16.75), she was finding something out about herself that would put her on a level playing field with the nation’s best.
“Before, I was always racing against someone,” she pointed out. “That was the first time that I took the initiative. It readjusted my mind-set about racing.”
With that new, more aggressive approach, Higginson would not lose a race the rest of the year over one mile, as the News Transcript’s 2007 Female Senior Athlete of the Year turned herself into one of the best distance runners in the country, bar none.
She began what would be an incredible outdoor season by smashing the state 5,000-meter record (16:38.31) on what will be her future home track, Princeton University.
At the Penn Relays, Higginson became the first New Jersey girl to win consecutive 3,000-meter races and her 9:37.32 was the third fastest in state history and a Shore Conference record. It was a fitting performance for Higginson, who credited her win there in ’06 as her big breakthrough. That
win convinced her that she could not only compete against national-caliber runners, but beat them as well. She wouldn’t look at herself the same again when she lined up in big races.
The record setting continued when she lowered the state 2,000-meter steeplechase record (6:50.39) at Rowan University.
It was now on to the championship season, where meet records fell as she marched toward her first outdoor MOC title. Along the way, she ran 4:47.71 for 1,600 meters, a Monmouth County record.
She made her final MOC memorable by winning that elusive outdoor title and breaking the SC record in the process (10:23.28).
“I was finally able to stick it out to the end and peak at the right time,” she said after her win.
The best was still ahead for Higginson. At the Nike Outdoor Nationals in Greensboro, N.C., she added the outdoor two-mile national championship to her trophy case, winning and again setting a new state record (10:17.44).
In this race, Higginson dug down deeper than ever before, finding a finishing kick that she hadn’t had before, to beat Neely Spence of Pennsylvania. It was Spence who made a big push with 600 meters to go, opening up a gap on Higginson. It was role reversal for the Cougar, who had been used to putting the competition away with a similar move, but now Spence was putting it on her.
Higginson, not known for her closing speed in the last 200 meters, summoned it this time and with 150 remaining, found an extra gear that brought her the national title. She ran her final 800 meters in 2:22. It just may have been her greatest race.
Before the NON weekend was over, she broke her own steeplechase record, posting a 6:46.67 in finishing third. She garnered the eighth and ninth All-American certificates of her career, concluding the finest career of any Freehold Regional District runner.
Higginson admits she’s come a long way from the freshman who played soccer her first fall on the Colts Neck campus.
“I started running because of its benefits,” she recalled. “After four years, I’ve changed a lot. Running became my passion, what I like to do.”
Cougar coach Jim Schlentz said that Higginson was “one of those people who decided I wanted to be the best I can.” That led to improvements each and every year.
“Ashley was always asking each year what do I have to do to make myself better,” he said. “She made herself a great runner. One of the great ones in state history.”
Starting with the cross country season, Higginson was unstoppable. She left course, meet and state records in her wake as she accomplished everything a runner could do in a career, in one year.
For all the glory that her individual achievements brought her, Higginson’s primary joy was being a part of the Colts Neck cross country and track and field teams. What the Cougars achieved was more satisfying than anything she did individually.
“My team means the world to me,” she said. “It’s why running has been so great.
“My team is my family,” she added. “The girls helped me grow and taught me how to lead. They made me work harder.”
Higginson was always there for the Cougars, whether it was winning the Nike Team Nationals race, anchoring the team to those relay national titles, winning three races at the Monmouth County Championships to ensure a Cougar win, pacing a teammate to a new personal best during a race, or getting up early in the morning to put in a run with a teammate. Higginson always seemed to turn in her best for the team.
It’s no coincidence that under her guidance, the Cougars have become a state powerhouse in both sports. The highlight of her season was getting the phone call back in November that the Cougars were going to the NTN. That lofty goal had been the team’s lone goal for a year.
“There’s nothing else I wanted this season,” she said. “This is so special. We worked as hard as we could, and it all worked out.”
It all worked out for Higginson as well. Her cross country season was remarkable. Besides leaving her mark at Holmdel Park (her county record 17:50), she turned in the ninth-fastest time ever on the famed 2.5-mile Van Cortlandt Park course in the Bronx. N.Y. Her time was the third fastest for a New Jersey runner.
Higginson would finish second at the Meet of Champions to Danielle Tauro of Southern Regional, and the following week punched a trip to San Diego for the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships. Back at Van Cortlandt Park, Higginson was fourth in the qualifier, running 17:51. At the championship in San Diego, Higginson, who was making her second cross country trip in a week, finished 18th.
The cross country season set up what would be a series of fast times and great wins for the Cougar. She clocked 4:49.1 in anchoring the 4×1-mile team to a second straight national title at the Armory and a new state record (20:36.41). The indestructible Higginson came back the next day to win the two-mile national crown. In NJSIAA competition, she won the State Group IV 3,200 and in the process, broke the meet record held by the legendary Janet Smith of J.P. Stevens. At the MOC, she would win her record-tying third straight title and break her own meet record this time.
The outdoor season began with her smashing the 5,000 record in Princeton and did not stop until the nationals, where she added the outdoor two-mile crown to her indoor jewel.
In breaking her own state record for the steeplechase in Greensboro, she picked up the eighth and ninth All-American certificates of her career.
Higginson did not confine her success to the track. She is just as driven in the classroom, where she was the school’s salutatorian. Running, she said, taught her how to compete everywhere.
“At the end of the day, the goal is to do better,” she explained.
It was a winning approach for the Cougars’ national champion.