MOUNTAIN IRON — In a normal season, the Mountain Iron-Buhl boys’ basketball team would be moving along at a good clip in Jeff Buffetta’s second year as head coach.
Instead, an incomplete summer schedule and a late start to the regular season has put the Rangers back a few steps. With fewer games crammed into just a few months, MI-B will need to come together quickly if they hope to make a name for themselves this season.
“It’s almost like we’re starting over again,” Buffetta said following Wednesday’s practice. “We had such an abbreviated summer and then usually the kids come right from fall sports and they’re in shape already. Now, we’ve had none of that and the kids are coming from a month and a half layoff where not a lot has happened.
“So I wish we were ahead of where we are right now but now it’s about starting over and getting back to being athletes again. We return a lot of people. We only lost one senior so I think we’re a little ahead of the game on that side of things.”
The lone senior lost to graduation, Nels Parentau, will leave some big shoes to fill for the Rangers, according to Buffetta.
“Nels was a good leader for us last year. It’s always hard having a new coach come in during your senior season and he handled it very well. He was the guy that brought energy to the court for us. He played very hard every single day so I think it’ll take some time to replace him. You need someone who works as hard as him and has a good attitude to go with it.”
The Rangers will look to build around sophomore Asher Zubich, MI-B’s standout, leading scorer. Other important pieces are sophomore Nik Jesch and juniors Jeffrey Kayfes, Hunter Weigel and Braxton Negen.
“Last year, if Asher had the ball he was going to put it in the hoop, but Nik Jesch finished with around 18 points a game and was probably our best on-ball defender. A lot of the stuff we’re going to do starts with those two.
“We had a lot of guys get some good experience last year, namely our juniors Jeff, Braxton and Hunter. Hunter is out with an injury right now but hopefully we’ll have him back by the end of the year.
In addition, Buffetta says another large group of sophomores saw playing time last year and will see significant time on the court this season.
“There’s too many sophomores to name but they all have that experience you need to feel comfortable on the court. Several of them started for us and they all bring different advantages to our game. I think if everyone shows some maturity and gains some confidence, it’s going to make a big difference for our team.”
With their schedule shortened to a maximum 18 regular season games (down from 26), getting a fast start to the season has never been more important. That’s just one of many challenges facing every team across the state.
“They’re coming in out of shape as it is. Knowing you get 10 days of practice and then you play games, you’ll know right away who’s prepared physically and who has the depth. I think we do have some depth on the boys’ side this year. We’ve got 10-12 guys we can put on the court and be beneficial for us.”
Addressing the possibility of not every time getting to compete in the section tournament, Buffetta says that might make his team work that much harder.
“The rumor is that maybe only the top eight teams make the playoffs. If that’s true, every game will mean a little more than it normally would. Whichever way it goes, if we get to have the playoffs, that’s huge. There’s just so much uncertainty this year.”
Favored across the section are North Woods and Nashwauk-Keewatin, the two teams that were supposed to play for the 2020 section title, but never got the chance to as the COVID-19 pandemic began. Buffetta says if the Rangers are to compete with the Grizzlies and the Spartans, among other teams, they’ll need to compete at all five spots on the court.
“The biggest things those top teams like North Woods, Nashwauk, Deer River and South Ridge have is that they’re huge. They have multiple guys standing at 6-foot-6 or 6-foot-7. We’re not that, we’re six foot or 6-foot-1. We have to learn to compete at every spot if we want to compete with these teams. I think we have enough talent to do that so if our guys can put it together, we’ll be fine.”
In the end, the fact that there is a season to have is a blessing for Buffetta and his teams.
“It’s nice to see these kids get a little bit back to normal. It’s a little abnormal with the masks and the limited fans at games, but basketball is basketball. I think it’s important for them to just get out there and play.