The girls' basketball teams from Sleepy Eye St. Mary's and Mountain Iron-Buhl will be playing back-to-back in the Class 1A semifinals on Tuesday at Target Center.

St. Mary's is 23-0 and gets Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa, all three of them, at 10 a.m. Mountain Iron-Buhl (MIB), 19-4, gets Minneota, also 23-0, at noon.

As a loyal Star Tribune subscriber, I was reading my cherished print edition this week and came across a mention in Jim Paulsen's preview on the girls quarterfinals: Jeff Buffetta coaches both the girls and boys basketball teams at MIB.

Question: How does that work?

One day later, I was reading Ron Haggstrom's predictions on the boys' quarterfinals, saw that Sleepy Eye St. Mary's was in the field – and was certain that a day earlier the girls from that small Catholic school also were in the matchups.

Question: How does that happen?

Thus, we embark on the search for answers.

Coaching two teams on the Range

Buffetta grew up in Mountain Iron and is a 1994 graduate. His father, Rick, was a custodian and bus driver. His mother, Sandy, is also a local, a Niskanen, with a nephew named Matt who should be familiar to hockey fans.

Buffetta's first job out of college was at McGregor (also a starting point for legendary Chisholm basketball coach Bob McDonald), and then he came home in 2000. He has been MIB's girls basketball coach since 2000, with nine state tournament appearances in a row from 2011 to 2019.

MIB lost to Maranatha in the state finals in 2012 and to Goodhue in 2017. "We lost to the eventual state champions eight times in those nine years,'' Buffetta said.

The Rangers missed the tournament that was never concluded in 2020, returned last month, and advanced through the quarterfinals with a 50-49 victory over Cass Lake-Bena on Tuesday at Pequot Lakes.

"It seemed like we were down by four points the whole game,'' Buffetta said. "We'd catch up, they'd go back up by four.''

The Rangers finally passed Cass Lake-Bena on Lauren Maki's two free throws with 17 seconds left, and then Jordan Zubich blocked a shot to win it.

And now they get Minneota, the last Class A champion in 2019. "That coach down there, Chad Johnston, is fabulous,'' Buffetta said. "We've never beaten them, I know that.''

The girls from MIB keep trying. "Our program starts in kindergarten,'' Buffeta said. "We lower the baskets and the kids start dribbling and shooting. In June and July, our players are in the gym and we have a program called '20,000 Makes' … and not layups.''

The MIB boys have made trips to the state tournament, the last in 2016. This was Buffetta's second season as head coach for the boys as well as the girls.

The system calls for back-to-back two-hour practices after school on non-game days – wrapping up around 8 p.m. On days with road games for one team, the other team has a 6 a.m. practice.

Mountain Iron and Buhl, separated by 10 miles, merged in 1985. There are a couple of state basketball championship trophies, earned by the Buhl Bulldogs in 1941 and 1942, the era of one-class, boys tournaments.

"I'd like to get those trophies over here in our case, but Buhl keeps them in its library,'' Buffetta said.

Sending two teams to Target Center

Sleepy Eye is a town of 3,400 with two high schools. St. Mary's states an enrollment of 300 from kindergarten through 12th grade, with the high school total of 82.

That made last Wednesday at Mankato East High School quite the happening, even though the St. Mary's delegation for the state quarterfinals was limited to 120 spectators because of COVID restrictions.

"We're grateful the high school league set it up so we could play our games back-to-back at the same place,'' said Bruce Woitas, the girls basketball coach for 22 years, and a very successful baseball coach for three decades.

First, junior Madison Mathiowetz scored 44 points and the girls team defeated Mayer Lutheran, 78-67. Then, junior Trent Steffensmeier scored 30 points and the boys defeated Central Minnesota Christian (Prinsburg), 86-73.

The unbeaten girls play that early Tuesday game at Target Center, and the St. Mary's boys (20-3) play Hancock at 10 a.m. on Wednesday.

There were no practices Friday, though.

"No school events – not on Good Friday,'' Woitas said.

The St. Mary's girls had no seniors last season and reached the section final, so expectations were high.

"Madison has 2,600 points now,'' Woitas said. "Sydney Windschitl is a terrific player for us, an excellent defender with over 1,800 points. It's a dedicated, determined group.

"And the boys – Judd Walter, he's an electrician in town, a very good player on our 1998 state tournament. We hired him three years ago and Judd has built up our boys program.

"We're waiting officially to find out how many tickets are available for our games at Target Center. We'll take all we can get.''