BIG HORN — Walk-offs, buzzer-beaters, goal-line stands and last-second touchdowns. Some of the most exciting plays in sports — tears of joy and tears of sorrow, depending on which side you’re on.
Kirk McLaughlin’s tears were joyful on the afternoon of May 20, and the walk-off came from four underclassmen sprinters who earned the Big Horn High School girls track team its third-straight state title.
Setting the scene
Contending for a state championship was nothing new for head coach McLaughlin and his Lady Rams squad. Coming off back-to-back dominating performances to win the previous two titles, Big Horn brought back plenty of talent to put the Lady Rams right back at the top of the class.
But so did Big Piney.
Big Horn had pushed through three days of grueling weather, schedule changes and up-and-down results at the state track meet. The team had accumulated 73.5 points heading into the final event, the 4×400-meter relay.
Big Piney was sitting on 74 points.
To add to the tension of the final event, both schools’ relay teams were nearly identical. So close, in fact, that less than one-tenth of a second separated the personal bests of each team.
The state title was on the line, and it was up to four Big Horn sprinters to bring it home.
“I was a little freaked out before the race,” sophomore Jenny Trabert admitted.
“We didn’t need to win; we just needed to beat Big Piney,” McLaughlin said. “I didn’t want to freak them out, but I kind of had to tell them. They stepped up.”
Big Piney put its top runner in the first leg, giving the Lady Punchers a quick lead. But Big Horn freshman Madison Blaney kept it close enough for junior Baylee Clemens, freshman Jordan Frank and Trabert to close the gap over the final 1200 meters.
The Lady Rams finished third in 4 minutes, 19.67 seconds — 1.39 seconds ahead of Big Piney, the sixth-place finisher.
“Motivation,” Frank called the pressure on her team’s shoulders.
“Just giving it your all, because we had nothing to lose at that point,” Blaney added.
The win gave Big Horn 79.5 points at the conclusion of the meet. Big Piney finished with 77.
It all came down to one race, and a third-place finish equaled another state championship banner in the gym at Big Horn High School.
Coaches often struggle comparing one championship to another, because winning championships aren’t easy feats. Many coaches never win one.
McLaughlin, who’s turned the BHHS track team into a 2A dynasty — the team hadn’t won a state championship since 2007 after a 17-year drought before that — admitted that Saturday’s title didn’t discredit the previous two, but it had a special feel to it.
“This year was especially special, not just because it was the third one, but because it was so much of a team effort,” he said. “It took so much to do it, and it was very exciting. It was a nail biter.”
The head track coach was also an assistant on the Big Horn state champion football team last fall, which needed a fourth-and-goal stop in overtime to take down Pinedale in the quarterfinals. It was the only thing McLaughlin could compare Saturday’s track title to as he joked that his heart doesn’t have much left for finishes like those two.
Added pressure aside, the state title came from a group of girls he said rallied around each other. Where the first two championships were won long before the final event, the 2017 title took every ounce of effort from every single Lady Ram.
“We’ve got some great girls that are willing to compete, willing to work hard,” McLaughlin said of the three-peat. “The assistant coaches are amazing; they work their tails off.”
And with four young runners sprinting Big Horn to a state championship with the pressure as intense as it could get, the future is bright in the eyes of the Lady Rams.
“It just says a lot about our young team,” Trabert said. “We were able to get a state championship with our race. We can definitely do it again next year.”