Devon Jones is in his first season coaching the Capital Christian boys basketball team, a junior-dominated squad that has the talent to repeat as Sac-Joaquin Section Division V champions and contend for a CIF state title.
But the businessman, El Dorado Hills resident and once-indifferent high school student sees an even bigger mission.
Jones wants to serve as a role model and cautionary tale for a group of gifted teenagers.
"I feel that coaching the X's and O's are meaningless if your players don't play with passion," Jones said. "Don't get me wrong. You have to game manage and make sure you have the right rotations on the floor.
"But with so much going on in these young men's lives, if you want to get the best out of them as students, athletes and people, it's more than what you draw up on a board."
Jones is 34 and has three children, including Tiegen, a talented freshman on the Capital Christian junior varsity team.
But Jones isn't far removed from his turbulent teen years when he played basketball for Jim Smrekar at Florin High School. Smrekar tried to steer Jones down the right path even if Jones saw it as more of an obstacle course at the time.
"I had a bad attitude, hated academics, was sure I was going to play for Villanova, and I had a really hard time with my coach," Jones said of Smrekar, now the director of sports for the Elk Grove Unified School District. "But as I grew up, and I started to coach my own kids, I realized that what he was trying to teach me were the right things."
Jones said he has come full circle.
"Now I'm a lot like he was," Jones said. "I expect discipline and accountability. One of the things that he always said after practice has stuck with me ever since: 'Every day, in every way, get better.' That's what I'm trying to do."
Taking over for Terry
Jones doesn't have an easy assignment after replacing Terry Battenberg, one of the area's most respected basketball coaches.
In his one season at Capital Christian, Battenberg, 66, led the Cougars to perhaps their best season, despite playing with a largely underclass team.
Capital Christian went 26-6 and beat Central Catholic of Modesto to win the school's first section title in boys basketball.
Battenberg, who previously coached at Jesuit, Ponderosa, El Dorado and Union Mine, stepped down at the end of the season to spend more time with his family.
"I knew that at some point I might be the varsity coach," said Jones, who coached the Cougars' junior varsity the past two seasons. "I figured Terry would be here at least two or three more years.
"But I've taken everything I've learned from Terry he's a great man and I've learned a ton from him and put it to use. There's still a lot of Terry's influence on the program. We're still running his offense."
Junior center Nifae Lealao, a national football recruit and the team's scoring leader, said the transition has been smooth, as evidenced by the No. 3 Cougars' 19-2 record and wins over Top 20 teams Bella Vista, Granite Bay and Oak Ridge.
"We weren't happy that coach Battenberg left, but we were happy when coach Devon came on because most of us have played for him either here or in AAU," Lealao said. "So we already knew what he wanted, what he expected."
Still, there have been some adjustments.
"There's definitely a difference in personalities," Lealao said. "With coach Battenberg, everything was highly structured. With coach Devon, there's more freedom as long as we're making good decisions.
"I also think we're more comfortable with him. Coach Devon relates to us a little more. He understands how we feel, our lifestyles and our home life outside of the basketball court."
Junior point guard Tyler Jennings, who transferred from Oak Ridge to Capital Christian after his freshman year, calls this season the most fun he's had playing basketball.
"We've gotten really close. We're all good friends who hang out together off the court," Jennings said. "A lot has to do with coach Devon. He's a really good motivator. He knows how to get us going."
Prominent area businessman Phil Oates coached Capital Christian for four seasons before serving as an assistant to Battenberg and now Jones.
"Devon is doing a masterful job of getting the kids to accept their roles," Oates said. "He's got unbelievable dreams for the program."
The 'cord of life'
Many Capital Christian players, including 6-foot-8 junior D.J. Wilson and 6-6, 245-pound sophomore forward Trey Belton, have next-level ability, if not in basketball, then in football or baseball.
"In more than half our practices, we've had D-I coaches watching our kids," Jones said. "We have only one kid who is below a 3.0 (grade-point average), and we've got eight kids on our team who can score 20 points on any given night."
But Jones said the numbers don't mean anything if the players aren't unified. He tries to build trust by taking time out from practice on a regular basis for "devotions" opportunities for the players to tell what's going on in their lives.
"Sometimes the boys all leave in tears," Jones said. "Often they find out they have similar problems, and they realize this sense of unity that they have."
Jones isn't reluctant to share his own stories.
He sometimes talks about what he calls "the cord of life" that took him from walking away from his basketball dream to take responsibility for his young family to building a fledgling transportation technology services company.
Only a few years removed from high school, Jones recalls returning to his Greenhaven apartment after working a job in San Francisco as a self-employed contractor and finding that the power had been turned off.
"I was making $300 here and $400 there and just getting by," he said. "I'm thinking this might be it. Maybe it's time to give up the idea of owning my own business.
"Then I realize that the people in the apartment below had moved out, and the electricity was still on. I went out to the trunk of my car, fished out an extension cord, flung it over the balcony and plugged it into an outlet so we'd have power.
"A few days later, a check comes in the mail. We get the power turned back on. Business gets better, and pretty soon we're buying our first house.
"Sometimes it's about survival, and sometimes in life you need that extension cord to get to the next phase in life."