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John’s Journal: The Curse Is Gone As MIB Wins Class 1A Championship

After Almost Yearly Trips To State, Rangers Top The Field

Posted: Saturday, March 18, 2023 - 5:30 PM


The Mountain Iron-Buhl Rangers celebrate their state championship.




BOLD coach Brian Kingery.

Nobody was saying the girls basketball team from Mountain Iron-Buhl was carrying a jinx, but the Rangers’ history at the state tournament sure could have made you think.

Year after year, the Rangers followed a pattern: Great regular season, whip through the Section 7 playoffs, head down from the Iron Range to the Twin Cities for the state tournament … and come up short of a title.

They came to state in 2011 for the first time since 1994. They were the Class 1A runner-up in 2012. They returned in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and were runner-up again in 2017. Another appearance came in 2018, then 2019, 2021 and 2022. (MIB missed state in 2020, the year Covid halted the tournament after two days and no champions were crowned.)

The Rangers were proud of their matched pair of second-place medals, but nobody wants to keep going to the well and seeing someone else pull up gold.

Maybe the 12th trip to state in 13 years was the magic number. Because they climbed the last mountain on Saturday, defeating BOLD 52-21 at Williams Arena to finally, finally, finally have gold medals on blue ribbons placed around their championship necks.

The team’s star and scoring leader, junior Jordan Zubich, summed everything up nicely afterwards, saying, “We’ve been down here so long. I said when we were in the lines getting our medals, ‘Holy crap, guys, we just broke the streak! We broke the MIB curse!’ It's crazy.”

Crazy? There is for sure some craziness to the story. But their championship is definitely a testament to hard work, dedication, community support and a coach who has been leading the way for a quarter of a century.

That coach, Jeff Buffetta, has a file on his computer that contains the names of every team member who has played at state. That’s 12 years of names, 12 years of kids, and he said he doesn’t recall the exact number off the top of his head, but all those players – some who have been out of high school for a dozen years – were on his mind Saturday.

“I’m very proud of the success of our program,” he said. “I think back over the last 12 years and our trips here and all the assistant coaches we've had and all the players that we've had that dedicated all the time and showed these guys what it's like to show up every day and put in the work. And it was just awesome to see them finish it off.

“I really believe that all of them were here with us today and were enjoying it every bit as much as if they were still playing. It's pretty awesome for everybody.”

The state championship continued a stellar school year for MIB athletics, coming on the heels of the football team’s first state title last fall.

The Rangers girls basketball team lost to Maranatha Christian 49-37 in the 2012 title game and to Goodhue 73-51 in 2017. This week they defeated Minneota 65-50 in Thursday’s quarterfinals and Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa 61-57 in Friday’s semifinals. They finished with a record of 30-3.

The championship victory was grounded on unrelenting defense. BOLD shot just 17.4 percent, making eight of 46 field-goal attempts; MIB shot 42.9 percent (21 of 49).

“The whole thing is the focus on defense,” said Buffetta, a 1994 MIB grad. “These guys, they like to gripe once in a while about the basic defensive drills and all the things that we do. If you watch the defensive discipline and intensity like they had today, you don't worry about missing shots, you just play defense and create offense off the defense. I think they were locked down the whole game today.”

Zubich led the scoring with 15 points, followed by juniors Gabby Lira and Hali Savela with 10 apiece. Lira, who is 5-foot-8, also had a game-high 13 rebounds. BOLD (26-6) was led by sophomore Lainey Braulick’s eight points.

Sage Ganyo, the only senior on the MIB roster, finished with nine points, six rebounds and one of the biggest smiles in the building.

“It means the world,” Sage said. “This has been my dream since I was in the womb and to have it come true, it means so much. I'm just so proud of these guys.”

The pride has always been there for the Rangers. They have become one of the premier programs in the state and expectations will be higher than ever next season.

But for now, they’re experiencing what everyone has dreamed of for all these years.

“I didn't quite know what it would feel like,” Buffetta said. “It feels good.”

In one of the most touching postgame moments, MIB’s Savela was asked about achieving a championship on a team that includes her mother and assistant coach, Dawn Savela. Her sister Macy, who is five years older, played on a string of state tournament teams. Tears came to Hali’s eyes as the question was posed.

“It's really special,” she said of her mom. “She's always been there for me. And it's just so awesome to be able to share this with her, and my sister up there supporting us in the stands. It's really special.”

BOLD was playing in its first state championship game, and the Warriors knew what kind of a challenge the Rangers presented.

“Well, that obviously didn't go quite how we wanted but that's the game of basketball,” said coach Brian Kingery. “Sometimes you just can't put the ball in the hoop and today we didn’t. You do that against a team like Mountain Iron and they can make you pay. They're a good team. They got a lot of capable players, they play good defense, and today we came up short.”

Amid the disappointment, Kingery flashed a postgame smile while standing on the court, holding the second-place trophy as the Rangers received their first-place medals. He leaned over to the player standing next to him in line, senior Lily Dean, said a few words and smiled.

“You have to appreciate each moment that you're given. And these opportunities don't come by all the time,” he said. “And today, it was an opportunity. Yes, it didn't go our way but I'm not disappointed with our girls. I'm proud of our girls. The way they played and conducted themselves on and off the court, they are great, great kids. And that's what I'm proud of. So I was joking with Lily there and we were just having a little laugh. And sometimes you need that. It's not just about being a coach. Sometimes it’s just about being a person to somebody else.”

Kingery, a science teacher who also is the head coach of the Warriors baseball team, has daughters who are in sixth grade (Mya) and third grade (Harper). He said the experience of coming to state and playing at Williams Arena will be felt long after this weekend by everyone.

“My daughters both said, ‘I want to play here someday.’ That’s awesome.”

He was asked about the success BOLD has experienced in several sports in recent years, and instead of talking about winning he focused on what goes into winning.

“The goal isn't necessarily to win a state title. It's to be a competitor. And you compete because you have to compete in life every day. You want a job, you want to get into college, you want to find a special someone, it doesn't matter. It's competition. And so we try to create a competitive environment to push kids to see what they're made of. And by doing that, we've created a winning culture.”

Providence Academy Repeats As Class 2A Champ

The Providence Academy Lions, playing in the 2A title game for the third year in a row, captured their second consecutive championship with a 74-60 win over Albany.

Two years ago, Albany defeated the Lions 57-43 in the title matchup. Albany, which also won championships in 1980, 1983 and 2008, finished this season with a record of 30-2; Providence Academy also closed at 30-2.

Ninth-grader Maddyn Greenway led the Lions with 31 points, five rebounds, five steals and four assists. Grace Counts had 17 points and 16 rebounds, and Hope Counts added seven points and 10 rebounds. Albany was led by Alyssa Sand with 29 points and 21 rebounds. Tatum Findley had 11 points for the Huskies.

Benilde-St. Margaret’s Wins 3A Championship

The Red Knights of Benilde-St. Margaret’s held off tournament upstart Stewartville 66-60 in Saturday’s Class 3A title contest. Stewartville, playing at state for the first time in school history and seeded fourth in the eight-team field, finished with a 28-3 record. The Tigers knocked out top-seeded Becker in the semifinals 60-59.

Second-seeded Benilde-St. Margaret’s (24-6) won state titles in 2006 and 2010 and played at state for the eighth time, including last year. The Red Knights were led by Sierre Lumpkin with 21 points (she made five of six three-point shots) and Olivia Olson with 19 points and 17 rebounds. Stewartville’s scoring leader was Savannah Hedin with 17.

Knights Take Class 4A Crown

St. Michael-Albertville reversed the outcome of last year’s 4A championship game, as well as two regular-season meetings, in defeating Hopkins 71-70.

The game was a rematch of last year’s 4A title contest, won by Hopkins 72-56. During Lake Conference play this season, Hopkins defeated St. Michael-Albertville by scores of 75-66 and 104-94.

The Knights held a 21-point lead late in the first half but Hopkins kept whittling away. St. Michael-Albertville held on through the final minutes, as well as the frantic final seconds, to secure the win.

Tessa Johnson led the Knights with 27 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. For Hopkins, Taylor Woodson  finished with 21 points.

St. Michael-Albertville (29-3) won state titles in 2001 and 2009. The Knights made their 11th appearance at state this year. Hopkins (28-3), one of the premier programs in the state, has been to state every year since 2015. They won titles in 2004, 2006, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2019 and 2022.  

--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected] 

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