Women’s basketball team draws inspiration from a special ‘guest coach’

As the season began for Western Carolina University’s women’s basketball team, players and coaches received some extra motivation from one very special “guest coach for a day,” Madison “Madi” Hornbuckle. A student at nearby Cullowhee Valley Elementary School, Madi suffers from glioblastoma multiforme, a common and aggressive type of brain tumor.

Madi Hornbuckle meets Paws

Karen Clarke ’83 MAEd ’86, Madi’s school counselor, said she developed the “guest coach” idea as basketball season started because she saw how upset Madi was about not being able to play basketball. “I wanted her to meet the WCU basketball team and connect with them,” said Clarke.

One phone call to Coach Karen Middleton was all it took. “Karen invited us to meet the players and be at a practice,” said Clarke. “Then Madi could come to the game the next night.”

When Madi attended the practice prior to the game, she was named “guest coach for a day,” Middleton said. “Madi is an inspiration to us all,” she said. “She always has a smile on her face and is very enthusiastic and excited to watch and follow our team.”

Among the players to connect with Madi was Jessica Jackson, a senior guard. “Madi had a major impact on our team during practice,” said Jackson. “We shot with her, and she was able to be a point guard and pass the ball to another player while she worked on her post moves. And our coach even taught her how to shoot layups.”

Along with being in the huddles at practice, Madi also received gear from the coaches. “When Madi did play basketball, she wore No. 20, and that had a special connection to our coach because that was also her basketball number,” said Jackson.

On an early season game night, Madi was the team’s guest of honor and had a special place on the bench. “We knew that because of Madi’s condition, it was uncertain if she would be able to come to our game on Friday, so we were hoping that she had a special time at practice with the team,” said Jackson. “When we arrived at the game and saw Madi’s face, I was extremely happy to see her.”

And her presence at the game had a solid impact on the team, which downed Wofford by a score of 71-65. “Seeing Madi at the game just put life in perspective for everyone,” said Jackson. “Madi’s character and personality has inspired us all to work hard and enjoy each day we are able to play basketball because we never know when it will be taken away from us.”

Madi and Middleton share more than just a jersey number – they share a mutual admiration. “Madi is a true winner and is someone who has captured our team’s heart and inspired us,” said Middleton. “She has an open invitation to attend practice and any games she is able to come to.”

In the fall, students and faculty from WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions took part in a fundraising effort to help with Madi’s treatment costs by folding paper cranes out of dollar bills. The idea was inspired by a nonfiction book in which a sick Japanese girl believes folding paper cranes will help her recover.