Young Rangers team hopes to reclaim 7A crown

Mountain Iron-Buhl’s Jordan Zubich drives the corner on Cherry’s Kaelynn Kudis in the first half of March’s Section 7A tournament game at UMD.

MOUNTAIN IRON — The Mountain Iron-Buhl girls’ basketball team saw their streak of nine consecutive section championships snapped last season after falling to Cromwell-Wright in the section finals.

A team that knows how to compete from day one, the Rangers will need to push forward and make some adjustments in a COVID-shortened 2021 season. Veteran head coach Jeff Buffetta says the list of returning players is shorter than previous years, but the few that are coming back are already ready to go.

“There’s no doubt that the girls we have know how to compete,” Buffetta said before Wednesday’s practice in Mountain Iron. “We’ll have to make some adjustments because we’ve lost some numbers. We’re used to playing with nine or 10 girls every season and this year we have six girls returning with varsity experience. We definitely have some JV players coming up that, with some gained experience, will step in for us but we do not return the experience this year that we have for many years now.”

The six returning players for MI-B are juniors Jacie Kvas, Lauren Maki and Ava Butler, sophomore Sage Ganyo, and freshmen Jordan Zubich and Hali Savela. The Rangers return no seniors to the team, something unusual for MI-B.

“Some of our kids are going to have to learn what it’s like to play hard for more minutes than they’re used to. Coming in with how different this season is compared to other seasons, along with playing three games in five days to start, we’ll know right away if we’re ready.”

If the Rangers hope to bolster their roster, the younger players who spend time on the junior varsity squad will need to take advantage of the minutes they’re given.

“I’m talking about seventh, eighth and ninth graders. Being that they’re so young, they just need reps. The talent is there but they need to put in the work at practice every day with the experienced girls and hopefully they’ll gain that confidence and eventually find themselves on the varsity floor. With the abbreviated time we’ve been given, hopefully they can step up for us and get some minutes.”

The Rangers will look to reclaim their spot at the top of Section 7A and will compete with perennial tough teams in Cromwell-Wright and Cherry, as well as Chisholm who advanced to the 7A semifinals last year with a young team.

“I’d like to think that we have a good chance this year to compete for a section title. I think, even though some of the top teams lost some players, you’ll still see a lot of the same teams battling it out at the end of the year. They’re good programs and they know how to rebuild and keep up the success.

“I’m sure there will be another new team coming in that surprises us much like Chisholm did last year. The teams that put in the time and want to fight will be there at the end.”

Among other challenges this year is scheduling. Teams can only play a maximum of 18 regular season games as opposed to 26. For MI-B, they were, at one point, down to as few as 12. The schedule is starting to fill out again however.

“You’d think it’s not much of a problem to go down to 18 but when both sides have to cut games, well we ended up with 12. We tended to be one of the teams everyone wanted to drop.

“It is what it is. Our athletic director and myself have been doing what we can do give these girls a full schedule. Right now, I think we’re up to about 17 games so hopefully we can get the last game in there and fill it out for them.”

With their long-standing streak of section titles broken last year, Buffetta says this year’s team is eager to bring the Rangers back to where they were in years past.

“I think this group might be a little tentative at first because we might not have the depth that we normally have, but I think they’re confident. They like to play and they like to compete. They’re excited about playing tough opponents and they’re always asking about other good teams and talking about making trips to go play them. They want to play these high-caliber opponents because they want to get better.”

Section title or not, Buffetta knows the Rangers are just excited to play basketball once more.

“They’re excited to get back out there. I think the kids just want to play some basketball and they’re getting that chance after a lot of time off.”

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