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Best Of 2019-20, Number 9: One Coach, Two Teams: A Busy Season At Mountain Iron-Buhl

Posted: Thursday, July 16, 2020 - 11:49 AM

Here's story No. 9 on my list of favorites from the 2019-20 school year. It was originally published on Dec. 17.

MOUNTAIN IRON – Last spring, the basketball season ended with the girls team from Mountain Iron-Buhl High School playing at state for the ninth year in a row. The Rangers are one of the premier Class 1A teams in Minnesota, with coach Jeff Buffetta in charge for two decades.

A group of coaches and their families, embarking on an Easter weekend vacation in San Diego, were car-pooling to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. During the three-hour-plus drive from the Iron Range, Buffetta turned to assistant coach John Villebrun and said, "I want to run something past you."

Luke Winans, the school's longtime athletic director, had stepped away from coaching the boys basketball team at the end of the 2018-19 season. Buffetta's proposal to Villebrun was simple: Would it be possible for Buffetta to coach both the girls and boys teams at the same time?

Villebrun told him, “You might be nuts. But you’re the only one who could pull it off.”

So here was Buffetta on Monday, directing the Rangers boys during practice from 3:20 until 5:15 p.m., watching the Rangers girls junior varsity play a home game against Esko, then resuming his coaching duties for the MIB-Esko girls varsity game. That was all after a full day of teaching fifth- and sixth-grade social studies and never leaving the school.

It was all in a long day’s work for the 1994 Mountain Iron-Buhl graduate who also has been on the coaching staffs for volleyball, football, softball, and track and field.

“I get to school early in the morning, and if I'm not coaching I’m usually here watching somebody else or scouting,” Buffetta said after the Rangers girls improved to 3-1 with a 70-42 win over the Eskomos.

Indeed, Buffetta and the girls team were back in the gym at 6 a.m. Tuesday for practice. The boys took a record of 5-1 into a game at Virginia that night, so having the girls practice before school allowed Buffetta – and Byron Negen, an assistant coach for both teams – to be there for the boys.

Scheduling was the main marker for deciding if coaching two teams was possible, said the 44-year-old Buffetta. The girls and boys play only one same-site doubleheader this season, and several games were rescheduled thanks to cooperation from other schools. The two teams hold separate practices.

There were no doubts regarding Buffetta’s coaching skills; he’s taken those nine girls teams to state tournaments, with Class 1A runner-up finishes in 2012 and 2017, he had a 457-136 career record coming into this season and was a 2017 inductee into the Minnesota Girls Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

When Buffetta’s dual coaching job was announced, there was some skepticism but lots of excitement, especially among the players.

“I was pretty excited, to be honest,” said ninth-grader Asher Zubich, who led the boys team in scoring as an eighth-grader. “They made the schedules balance out, so we were getting just as much time and effort as the girls were. I just thought it was going to be great, and it’s been great. He pushes us hard in practice to make sure we're on top of our game.”

Buffetta had thought about coaching the boys at some point in his career. He has a daughter in fourth grade and a son in second grade, and the thought of coaching his son had some appeal. When Winans resigned, Buffetta considered simply moving over to the boys team, but he didn’t want to leave the girls program he had helped build.

“Mr. Winans did such a good job here and had such a good program,” Buffetta said. “I always knew that if he ever decided not to (coach), I knew I’d take a look at it and consider it. Making the complete switch from girls to boys really was hard to do right now in the middle of what our girls are doing.

“We have a good relationship with all these girls, they all work hard, I think it's been something special that we've done here and you just want to keep it going. And I hate to see somebody else come in and take the blame for not keeping it going. So if we were going to end up losing, it was going to be on my time and not somebody else's.”

Coaching two teams simultaneously does make for a hectic season. Practices and games make it busy enough, and Buffetta also is in the gym Saturdays for elementary basketball.

“It's just time management, that's all it is,” he said. “It’s scheduling for practices and games and away games and early morning practices and all that stuff. Once I figured I could do it, it was time to do it. I think I appreciate Sundays a little bit more, though.”

Both Rangers teams are young. Nels Parentau is the only senior on the boys squad and there are three seniors (Laney Ryan, Miah Gellerstedt and Mia Ganyo) on the girls team.

“I was kind of worried because it was new,” Parenteau said of the coaching change. “It’s my senior year and I thought having a new coaching staff might be stressful because I was so used to one coaching staff for my entire basketball career. But it was exciting because I know how good they were with the girls and I knew that Mr. Buffetta could handle it.”

He can easily handle it, said Ganyo.

“I was excited when I heard that he was coaching both boys and girls,” she said. “He gets this excitement in his eyes and in his voice when he's coaching us. It's just the best thing because he's doing it with all his heart and he's doing it for us.”

During the boys practice Monday, Buffetta and Negen led the team through drills, followed by cross-court sprints and time in the weight room. A few minutes later on the same court, Negen was coaching the junior varsity girls and was on the bench during the varsity contest.

“It's a time commitment, but it's something we both enjoy doing,” Negen said. “We love being involved with basketball and we enjoy working together and teaching kids a game that we love. And I think that's what makes it so much fun for the two of us.

“He came to me and said, ‘What do you think about doing the girls and the boys program?’ And right away I said, ‘Let's do it. I think it'd be fun.’ There was no hesitation. It’s worked out great so far. There are some long days, but the good thing is we both have wives that are pretty committed to what we do and if they're happy, we're happy.”

Buffetta said he is aware of two other coaches, one in Florida and one in North Carolina, who are pulling similar double coaching duty.

If both Rangers teams go deep into the postseason, there is one possible glitch in the scheduling magic. Should the Rangers girls advance to state, they could play a Class 1A semifinal game in Minneapolis on March 13. That same day, the boys could be playing in the Section 7 championship game in Hibbing.

In no surprise at all, Buffetta is optimistic that they could make it work.

“The way I look at it is, if we ever get to a girls state semifinal on the same day as a boys section championship, it would be doable. I mean, I thought about that ahead of time. It could easily get done.”

In the meantime, the two Rangers teams have one head coach and everything is working out just fine.

“I love being here,” Buffetta said. “Everybody knows that I grew up here, we have a lot of pride in our school. And we just want to help the kids out and be the best that we can.”

--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.

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Best Of 2019-20, Number 8: Officially Speaking: Communication Is Key On The Field