BIG HORN — During the 2017 Big Horn High School winter sports banquet, Lady Rams head basketball coach Michael McGuire found himself in a situation he had never previously encountered.
Sure, he was honoring his girls basketball players for bringing home the school’s first state title in eight years, the first with him as head coach. But that wasn’t too new for the Big Horn veteran. After all, he’d won a state championship just months earlier with the football team — his second in four years.
This unique situation came down to recognizing the seniors on the team. He’d done it many times before, but this time was different. McGuire typically honored each senior individually.
Not this time.
“When I think of one, I think of the other,” McGuire said. “They’ve just kind of been our dynamic duo.”
Abby Buckingham and Emily Blaney have been inseparable for as long as their head coach — previously the Lady Rams assistant — had known them. Other than their positions on the hardwood — one a forward, the other a guard — the two were one and the same.
So McGuire felt he had no choice. He’d honor them together.
The winter sports banquet was just a culmination, though, a final close of the curtain on impressive careers at Big Horn and even more impressive senior seasons. For Buckingham and Blaney, it was even more than that. It was a culmination of a bond that started way before they led their team to a state title.
After some deep thought, Buckingham’s memory brought her all the way back to first grade for the start of the friendship. Things really blossomed at the start of sixth-grade volleyball.
From there, they were connected.
“Everything they’ve done, they’ve done it together,” McGuire said. “Especially when it comes to basketball.”
On the basketball floor, the duo was dynamic indeed. With Blaney running the point and Buckingham clearing way in the post, they became a force with which to be reckoned.
Neither player stood out. Yet, they both did.
If one had a bad day, the other picked up the slack, and vice versa. They had each other’s backs.
When the 2A end-of-season awards were announced, Blaney and Buckingham were both All-Conference and All-State selections. They were three-year starters and three-time All-Conference players.
Blaney was named Conference Player of the Year, but the voting was done prior to the postseason — Buckingham’s turn to take over — and the award could have just as easily been Buckingham’s. A toss of a coin would have been just as easy — or difficult.
The stats speak for themselves:
• Buckingham: 281 total points, 174 rebounds and 39 percent shooting
• Blaney: 272 total points, 83 assists and 116 steals
Buckingham worked the inside, Blaney outside.
They each went for a team-high 12 points in the state championship, a perfect snapshot of their careers.
It wasn’t about the stats for these two, though. The awards were just added bonuses. Well, the individual awards were. There was one prize that trumped all others: a state championship.
That was the goal from day one, winning a basketball state title. And they wanted to make sure they did that together.
The lofty expectations translated to extra time in the weight room, additional shots — it helped to have an all-time rebounder — and a constant driving force standing beside each other.
“I know she’s right there with me working just as hard,” Blaney said. “I know she’s there to win it all, and I know that I need to be there for her to win it all.”
While there were bumps along the road, including a missed trip to the state tournament as juniors, the punches became easier to absorb with a shoulder to lean on. Through the good and the bad, the highest of days and the lowest, they counted on each other to get through them.
“She’s been my encouragement,” Blaney said. “She’s been there pushing me. Whenever I was down, she was helping me. I don’t know how I would have done it without her.”
McGuire emphasized how much the Lady Rams program would miss the two seniors when they graduated. But, he added, their contributions to the program built a foundation that he foresees lasting long after Buckingham and Blaney are gone.
It’s all the younger girls know.
“Trust is such an important thing, especially with basketball,” McGuire said. “They trust each other 100 percent. On the floor, off the floor. They’re best friends, and I think that carried on to the rest of our team.”
The hard work and dedication — to the team and each other — will surely resonate with their younger teammates. That’s not the only legacy left behind by two girls who made a pact with each other a long time ago.
A new banner will hang on the walls in the Big Horn gym forever.
They were state champions.
“I can’t even describe the feeling,” Buckingham said, fighting off goosebumps brought by the memories. “It was so amazing. Just thinking about all the work we did, together, and the time, it was just surreal winning that, knowing that it all paid off in the end.”
So McGuire stood on the stage, the confetti from the state championship long since swept and the first-place trophy off to the engraver — Big Horn Lady Rams, it will eventually read. And two lifelong friends stood next to each other, as they had done all season long.
“I don’t really know how else to put it,” McGuire said. “The only way to describe it is, they genuinely care about the other one just as much or more than they care about themselves.”
McGuire shook up his own routine to honor two senior basketball players, two leaders and two best friends at the same time. He had no choice. It’s what each one would have wanted for the other; it’s how they got to that point, standing on that stage as state champions.
Photo: Justin Sheely | The Sheridan Press