At 65, Capital Christian High School boys coach Terry Battenberg likes to kid about his age with his players.
"I tell them that when I played I was All-Metro and that there was only one team, and it was Sutter's Fort," Battenberg says jokingly of Sacramento's historic settlement. "So they have taken to calling me 'Mr. Sutter's Fort.' "
It's a rare chance for the Cougars to catch their usually demanding and no-nonsense mentor who grew up in basketball-crazed Indiana in a light moment.
"We'll be fooling around and shooting after practice and he'll tell us that he was the top scorer, best rebounder and all-everything for Fort Sutter," says sophomore point guard Marcelas Perry. "So some of us have started calling him that, but only when the time is right, and not during practice. Practices are real serious."
Basketball has always been serious for Battenberg, even when he was a young coach.
At 22, Battenberg took over as coach at Jesuit after Bob Gaillard was hired as an assistant at USF. Battenberg's previous experience: One season coaching Jesuit's junior varsity while attending Sacramento State.
"It was thrilling to get that job," Battenberg said. "Jesuit was a new school and a program on the rise. It was a great first year."
Fast forward 43 years.
The revered and respected Battenberg has come full circle and ranks as the area's dean of coaches. He's been a head college coach (Montana Tech and American River), assistant college coach (Oregon State, Sacramento State and ARC) and highly successful prep coach (El Dorado, Ponderosa and Union Mine in addition to Jesuit), winning 12 titles in 22 seasons.
Battenberg has also put on countless camps and clinics throughout the western United States, Australia and Japan.
In his first varsity season at Jesuit in 1969, the Marauders (26-2) were recognized as Cal-Hi Sports' state Division III Team of the Year (there were no state playoffs). In his last season at Union Mine (26-2) in 2007, his team was a Sac-Joaquin Section D-III semifinalist.
Now, after four years away from the high school game, Battenberg is back leading an intriguing Capital Christian (14-4) team, ranked No. 17 by The Bee. The Cougars feature eight talented underclass players on an 11-man roster.
"I like new challenges," said Battenberg, a retired teacher living in Fair Oaks. "And with coaching, there are so many ups and downs and moments where you are excited or you feel terrible. It's something you don't really get to experience in real life."
When former Capital Christian coach Phil Oates learned Battenberg was interested in returning to coaching, he decided to step down after four seasons. Oates, 60, assists Battenberg with Tim Weir, a former player for Battenberg at El Dorado.
"Knowing that this team has the potential to be special, I felt Terry was the right man for the job," Oates said. "His methods have stood the test of time, and with him our players are getting a college program (experience) on a high school campus."
They are also receiving a coaching dissertation on post play, which some say is becoming a lost art at the prep level.
Battenberg has written two books on post play, and has a potential gold mine at Capital Christian with his 6-foot-5 quartet of sophomores Nifae Lealao and DJ Wilson and freshmen Trey Belton and Nick Aibuedefe.
Belton and Lealao are already impact players with uncannily similar soft left-handed shooting touches. The 265-pound Lealao was the Golden Empire League's Defensive MVP in football.
Lealao averages 13.5 points and 8.3 rebounds, Belton 11.4 points and 7 rebounds.
The duo complements 6-6 senior perimeter shooting ace Matt Donlan, the team's scoring leader (17.4 points per game). Donlan, with his considerable leaping skills and lithe body, can play above the rim.
With three gifted point guards in Perry, sophomore Tyler Jennings and freshman Justice Shelton-Mosley, Battenberg has the luxury of offensive diversity.
"I've always been a running coach, but this team has the speed and depth to make it potentially the best," Battenberg said.
There's still a huge learning curve. The players sometimes go soft defensively and on the boards against veteran teams. Because of their inexperience, the variety of presses they are seeing occasionally leaves them puzzled.
Still, they are astonished at how much they are learning.
"His knowledge is incredible," Lealao said of Battenberg. "Some of the concepts and skills he's teaching us you don't see many other coaches doing. But they work."
Expectations are high for Battenberg and his players.
Capital Christian hopes to win its first Golden Empire League title since 2007, and with the Sac-Joaquin Section expanding to six playoff divisions, the school has returned to Division V after playing several seasons in D-IV.
"I've set high goals for this team and one of them is getting to the section finals," said Battenberg who, despite his considerable résumé, hasn't won a section banner (he won a Sacramento Tournament of Champions title with Jesuit in 1969 before the section playoff format began).
"But we've got a lot of work still. I keep trying to sell them on getting better each and every day. They've been receptive. We'll see what happens."
"Practices are real serious."
MARCELAS PERRY, on Terry Battenberg's approach to coaching