HEIDI HIGGINS SERMABEKIAN
Spring Valley High School
Class of 1981
Where to begin with Heidi Higgins? Her athletic career was marked by a pair of firsts: first girl to play baseball in the Monsey Little League, and first girl to play on a boys’ high school baseball team in New York State. But it was also marked by a record-setting career as a soccer goalkeeper for Spring Valley: she still holds five Rockland County records, including saves in a game (30), season (254) and career (504).
Wait, there’s more. How about her two All-County selections for basketball, helping lead the Tigers to the 1979 Section 9 championship and 1980 Rockland County title? Or her All-County nod and team captaincy in softball? Let’s not forget her four years of full-scholarship basketball at Nazareth College, where she is still one of the all-time single season (251) and career (741) rebounding leaders and spearheaded the No. 8-ranked Golden Flyers to the NAIA national tournament in Kansas City.
And here’s a fun fact you probably didn’t know: Heidi, a former NYPD detective and social worker, once appeared on “60 Minutes” for her work in getting a homeless veteran, “The Wild Man of W. 96th Street,” into appropriate mental health care after he wreaked havoc in the streets of New York. She received an award from New York City Mayor David Dinkins and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, and was featured on the Times Square Trinitron for a week.
Breaking the Mold: A Girl on the Boys’ Team
That’s a lot to digest. Maybe we should start with an appraisal by one of her teammates at Spring Valley, Charlotte Smith Bonomolo, who cited Heidi’s “spirit, her desire to win, her never-give-up attitude about sports and life.” Heidi had to mine all of that spirit, desire and resiliency when she tried out for the freshman boys’ baseball team. New York State required demanding physical tests that Heidi had to pass before gaining eligibility to play. The tests included an obstacle course, sprinting and long-distance running, pullups, pushups, situps, squat thrusts, suicide runs, catching balls at high speed, throwing at a target, running the bases in the allotted time, and proper technique in sliding into a base under the tag. If she failed any one of these tests, she failed overall.
Guess what? “I passed with flying colors,” Heidi said gleefully. “It became a personal challenge that made me want to play on the team even more.” Thereafter followed an evaluation by the state-certified instructor to determine whether Heidi was psychologically sound enough to participate in this “contact” sport with boys her own age. After answering a series of probing questions to the satisfaction of the evaluator, Heidi finally was deemed worthy of playing baseball with her male peers, and was quickly welcomed into the fold by her new teammates.
A Player For All Seasons
All told, Heidi participated in 12 seasons of sports at Spring Valley, playing on 10 varsity teams, one JV team and one freshman team encompassing girls’ basketball, softball, soccer and track, and boys’ baseball. How much did she love the competition? Her comment about playing soccer goalie is telling: “My favorite was defending the goal for a penalty kick. Just me and the net. It was such a rush.”
Heidi played center and forward in basketball, first base in baseball, and third base, shortstop and first base in softball. In soccer she made first-team All-County goalkeeper her junior year and second team her senior year, while in basketball she made second-team All-County both years. Heidi was coached by Paul Sbrollini and Paul Shapiro in basketball, Lou Kliewe and Shapiro in soccer, and Cliff Hillman in softball.
Heidi considers herself fortunate to have played with a roster of high-caliber female athletes at Spring Valley, teammates like Janet Pia Grahn, Nancy Connors Brezovsky, Rhonda Carden, Charlotte Smith Bonomolo, and MariEllyn Dykstra Thurston Donnellan, among others. Many went on to play competitively in college and receive scholarships. Heidi also relished playing against top-flight competitors such as Carol Duke of Tappan Zee, Christine McGuinness, Eileen and Cathy Sullivan from Albertus Magnus and Denise McGuire from Pearl River. Several of her basketball and softball opponents wound up as her teammates in summer leagues. “Many of us are still friends after all these years,” she said. “Some of us were in each other’s wedding parties too!”
Support From Those Who Care
Heidi singles out Lorraine Guerci Moylan and Paul Shapiro as two influential mentors in her life. As Spring Valley’s JV girls’ basketball coach during Heidi’s senior year, Lorraine helped Heidi navigate the challenging college selection process. “Not only did I respect her as a coach but as an athlete and a person. Lorraine is someone to emulate as she is intelligent, an exceptional coach, a tough competitor, an athlete and good role model for young women.” When Heidi returned to Spring Valley in 1985 to serve for one year as assistant coach for the girls’ basketball team, she had the privilege of coaching alongside Shapiro, who had coached her in basketball and soccer. “He is one of the best men I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing,” said Heidi, who has remained good friends with Shapiro. “He was a good teacher and coach but most of all a solid human being filled with compassion and decency.”
Heidi received numerous college scholarship offers for basketball, softball or soccer but ultimately accepted a full basketball scholarship to Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y. At Nazareth, she started all four years, scoring 895 career points and averaging 13 points a game. She was chosen as NAIA Player of the Week three times, and was team captain and MVP her senior year. Heidi graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work. “Choosing Nazareth was a good fit for me,” she said. “It was a small college but very competitive and well respected both academically and athletically.”
Fun fact No. 2: Heidi graduated college with Jeff Van Gundy, the former New York Knicks coach and current NBA broadcaster. Van Gundy was point guard for Nazareth’s men’s team, which played in Division III.
Heidi continued playing basketball and softball after college, competing in circuits including the Kingsbridge Softball League, White Plains Women’s Basketball League, Empire State Games basketball, and the NYPD Commissioner’s Softball League. She also coached and taught at various basketball camps and leagues, including the Girls’ All-Star Basketball Camp, CYO Basketball Camp in Peekskill, N.Y., and Police Athletic League. She also found time to coach swimming for the NYS Special Olympics.
Police Career: Maintaining the Family Tradition
After her one-year stint as assistant coach at Spring Valley, Heidi entered the NYPD Police Academy and became a police officer in 1986, the fourth generation of her family to wear the vestments of New York’s Finest, dating back to 1880 (with a fifth-generation Higgins currently serving). After seven years she was promoted to detective, a position that was tailor-made for her. She spoke of “so many incredible experiences,” including a stint as an undercover prostitute.
Then there was that turn in the spotlight taming “The Wild Man of W. 96th Street.” The homeless veteran was an addict who went on rampages after bingeing on drugs and alcohol. He nearly killed people on numerous occasions, including throwing a child in front of an oncoming utility truck. Heidi took a personal interest in the case since it was in her precinct in Manhattan and she had experience as a social worker. “He was falling through the cracks of our system,” she said. “He was a vet and our responsibility as a society was to help him and make sure he was not a danger to himself or others.” Heidi had to go to court to get the man placed in a mandatory mental hospital, Creedmor Psychiatric Center in Queens, N.Y. It was a precedent-setting case that received ample air time on “60 Minutes” in a much-publicized segment hosted by CBS news journalist Leslie Stahl.
Heidi retired in 2006 as a detective in the Community Affairs Division. Her retirement was hastened by illnesses stemming from her three months of work as a first responder at Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Heidi suffers from COPD and pulmonary hypertension. Last fall she experienced heart failure from long-term use of steroids, which are prescribed to improve breathing function but weakened her heart over a long duration. She continues to undergo pulmonary rehabilitation to regain greater lung capacity.
“It’s been and it’s going to be a long road but I don’t have any regrets because I would do it all over again if such circumstances should arise,” Heidi asserted. “I took an oath and I will always be true to that oath, which I raised my hand and swore to uphold way back in July of ’86.”
After college, Heidi lived in the Bronx for 13 years before moving with her husband, Robert Elie Sermabekian, to Sloatsburg in 1999. The couple moved to Wilmington, N.C., five years ago and “we are loving every minute of it,” Heidi said.
Heidi, who is 60, and Elie have been married 28 years. She is stepmother to his three children. Despite her health setbacks, she maintains a sunny outlook on life and lives each day to the fullest. “I have been so blessed in my life to have so many incredible experiences, opportunities and achievements,” she said. “I follow the old Irish proverb, ‘Do not resent growing old for many are denied the privilege.’”