Jake Higginbotham didn’t start pitching until he was 15, the summer before his freshman year of high school. By the end of his junior year at Buford High, opposing batters probably wished the lefthander had never set foot on a mound.
Higginbotham compiled a 9-0 record and 0.54 ERA while finishing with 124 strikeouts in 65 1/3 innings for the Wolves last season. He held batters to a .167 average.
Some of his best outings came in the playoffs, where he was the winning pitcher in Game 1 in all four of the Wolves’ series in leading them to the AAA state semifinals.
For his efforts, Higginbotham is The Times’ Pitcher of the Year.
Buford coach Tony Wolfe said his 5-foot-11, 160-pound ace has much more than a powerful arm.
“He’s got an understanding of what he wants to do and how to get people out,” Wolfe said. “A lot of guys with strong arms just want to throw it by everybody.”
That “pitcher, not a thrower” mentality Wolfe points to goes back to Higginbotham’s start as a pitcher. Higginbotham was trying out for a spot on Team Gwinnett, a high-level travel team, after previously playing outfield and a little bit of first base.
The team saw him as a lefty with pitching potential.
Higginbotham’s tryout was a success, and he began working with a pitching coach, John Devore.
“He taught me how to pitch,” Higginbotham said.
Devore’s tutelage, plus encouragement from his father, Mike Higginbotham, and other family members gave Jake Higginbotham the push he needed to follow through with pitching.
“It’s not about how hard you throw,” Higginbotham said. “It’s where you throw it.”
He said he can blow it by people when needed, but he’s more interested in making the right pitches on the right counts.
“Keeping the hitter off balance is the biggest thing for me,” Higginbotham said.
After a sophomore season in which Higginbotham struck out 94 and carried a 0.70 ERA, Wolfe saw his ace throw harder, have better command, improve his breaking pitch and mature in a major way.
Higginbotham, a Clemson commit, pointed to the quartet of playoff victories as his most meaningful accomplishment. He said it gave his team confidence going into Game 2 of each series, while also showing his fellow pitchers the best way to attack the opponent.
Among those playoff outings were a 15-strikeout performance against St. Pius X in the second round and a 14-strikeout outing versus Pike County in the quarterfinals.
“I just enjoy competing,” he said. “I enjoy helping my team get wins and just enjoy leading my team.”
Higginbotham tossed four complete games in 12 starts, with 10 runs (five earned) allowed on 40 hits and 20 walks.
The junior standout was able to excel even when things got tough.
“When he got in a little bit of a jam, his poise and his composure came out,” Wolfe said. “I had other coaches tell me when he got in trouble, he took it to another level. He can execute in those pressure moments probably better than anybody else I’ve ever seen.”
Higginbotham was also dangerous at the plate. He had a .417 batting average, 25 runs, nine RBIs, three doubles and two triples.
Seeing his player’s success on the diamond is only one dimension of Wolfe’s pride in Higginbotham, the centerpiece in the team’s deep playoff run and 30-5 overall record.
“He’s a great kid,” Wolfe said. “I love spending time around him and feel fortunate we get to spend another year together as he continues to grow as a player.”
For that final year before heading to Clemson, Higginbotham carries a sense of unfinished business. He said Buford had the talent to win a state championship in 2014 but didn’t bring its “A” game in its semifinal series loss to Cartersville. It’s an image he’ll use for motivation for his ultimate goal next season.
“To get a state championship would be the cherry on top of the icing for me,” Higginbotham said. “I really want a state ring.”