1 coach, 2 teams, no problem

Mountain Iron-Buhl’s Nikolas Jesch drives past Bigfork’s Ben Heinle in the first half of February’s game in Mountain Iron.

MOUNTAIN IRON — When Jeff Buffetta suggested the idea of coaching both the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams at the same last year, it raised a few eyebrows, according to the veteran coach of 22 years.

Now looking back at the season, Buffetta and assistant coach Byron Negen believe things went about as well as could be expected.

In the beginning, “most people probably thought it was a little bit nuts at first,’’ Buffetta said. “Negen and I we set a plan for it and we felt the plan could work. You never know until you go out and do it, but I think overall we had a pretty successful year. Everything went pretty well.’’

Asked about the School Board and superintendent reactions, he said, “Everybody was pretty receptive once we explained to them how it could be done. The first reaction of everybody is there’s no way it can be done. Once you sit down and actually put it on paper, then you realize it can be done.’’ The change came after Athletic Director Luke Winans stepped away from coaching boys’ basketball after the 2018-19 season.

On non-game days, the routine was pretty straight forward. After school let out, one team practiced until 5:30 p.m. That was followed by having both teams in the weight room from 5:30-6 p.m. The team that hadn’t practiced yet then hit the floor from 6-8 p.m.

“The time flew,’’ 1994 MI-B grad Buffetta said, and the kids worked hard.

Game days often required one team to practice at 6 a.m., while the other hosted or traveled to a game that night.

“It wasn’t as difficult as I would’ve thought it would be. As long as you’re willing to be on a basketball court for 4-6 hours per day’’ in addition to teaching fifth- and sixth-grade social studies full-time. “I thought it would be a little bit more challenging.’’

“My staff and I we enjoy putting the time in on the court. I think for the most part going there every day was fun. It wasn’t anything to dread,’’ he said.

Both Buffetta and Negen enjoyed coaching the girls for two hours and then switching to the boys — or vice versa.

“I thought it was a lot of fun’’ going from one to the other, said Negen, who served as assistant coach for both teams. “Each one at times were different.’’ He said if one practice didn’t happen to go well, the next one would. “It picked me up.’’

“You switch groups and you switch thought processes,’’ Buffetta said. “Each group had different things to work on and different things you had to emphasize. It was sort of a fun switch. No matter what group was first or second.’’

Negen added the kids liked the morning practices, especially the boys. “I didn’t know how that would go,’’ he added.

Negen was supported coaching both teams right from the start. “Right away I said let’s do it.’’ The change also gave him a chance to coach his son, but he said that was a bonus. “I do it because I enjoy coaching basketball.’’

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Buffetta believes he put everyone’s concerns to rest after a successful season. The girls compiled a 23-7 record and advanced to the Section 7A championship game for the 10th year in a row. The boys, meanwhile, put together a 15-13 mark before falling to Ely in the second round of the 7A playoffs. There was only one scheduled doubleheader, but the girls’ game ended up being canceled.

“What everyone considered maybe the impossible challenge, it really wasn’t that impossible,’’ Buffetta said. “It ended up being very doable and obviously the kids had a lot to do with that.’’

The players were up to the challenge.

“They were ready. They knew that sometimes they had to do some preparing on their own. ... That was never a problem.’’

Asked about any possible improvements, Buffetta said some things can be worked on.

That includes having both teams in the weight room at the same time, which got a bit crowded. “There’s some things we can learn from this year to make next year better, but none of those things went poorly. We’re going to try to make them better.’’

Buffetta would also like to find more time to meet or work with the kids individually. “The challenge next year is that individual time.’’

Yes, Buffetta plans to lead both teams again in 2020-2021 and he relayed that message to his players last week.

“As long as our administration is on board, we want to do it again. I think we did a decent job of it this year. Both teams were successful and hopefully we’ll continue to get better.’’

Buffetta, the only coach in the state coaching two teams at once, said the key is “getting enough rest.’’

The concept leads to some long days of practice, games and travel, but he and his staff managed to get that rest.

“We learned to get really good at napping on the bus. As long as you get enough rest, it’s fine.’’

With the hectic, demanding schedule, Buffetta only missed one game due to illness.

Otherwise the plan was for he and Negen to be at every game. “If we can’t do that we shouldn’t be doing it this way.’’

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The Rangers did relay on their assistant coaches more than in past years.

That came in the form of game preparation and breaking down film, even though Negen and Buffetta still do that a lot. “Maybe we couldn’t see as many in person games as we did in the past.’’

Buffetta had no problem assigning those duties to his assistants.

“I take a lot of pride in the staff we have assembled here. It’s nice when they feel they’re being utilized. ... We have a great staff and they all like to help in as many ways as possible.’’

Negen added that the players supported the coaches and each other throughout the season.

The teams now run much of the same offense, he said, and they were able to help each other with different aspects of the game while traveling to joint tournaments, for example.

Both teams should be aided by a joint holiday tournament at MI-B over the Christmas break. The girls have been hosting the tournament for several years and 2020-21 will be the first year for a boys’ bracket.

“It should work out really well,’’ Buffetta said, with both afternoon and evening games for the two-day event.

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Both Negen and Buffetta both love basketball and could not think of any negatives about the new coaching arrangement.

“We enjoy doing it so I guess that‘s what makes it fun,’’ Negen said. “I think we work pretty good together.’’

“For me it was positive,’’ Buffetta added. “We have a lot of good kids that take basketball seriously at MI-B and it was fun being involved with them every day.’’

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