Family approach inspires Northern Lebanon
Every so often in sports, the gods smile, the planets align, the perfect storm builds and - boom- magic happens.
It's hard to define, almost impossible to plan, but easy to spot when it comes to fruition.
For the Northern Lebanon girls basketball team, its current magical run of success - the once perennially floundering program is 53-6 in the last two seasons with two section championships and last Friday's exhilarating District 3 4A title win - had its origins in a most unlikely place early in the 2013-14 season.
Would you believe the back of the bus on the way home from a win at Lancaster Mennonite, one of the few victories the Vikings would notch that season?
During that lengthy ride back to Fredericksburg, three wide-eyed freshmen - current senior stalwarts Zoe Zerman, Megan Brandt, and Amber Kintzer- sat and listened as Vikings head coach Ken Battistelli made a rather bold prediction of their shared future.
"Our very first win (together) four years ago was against Lancaster Mennonite," Battistelli recalled on Wednesday following practice for NL's state playoff opener on Friday. "And on the way home, we sat in the back of the bus and talked about greatness. We were like 1-7 and I told them that I had a vision that this team would be the greatest team to ever play, that one day they'd build a statue of me and make a movie about them. As crazy as it sounds, I meant it. And as a group we believed that together. To this day, they all remember that."
Whether or not there will ever be a statue or a movie is definitely up for debate, but the highly optimistic coach and his feisty group of overachievers have fashioned a Hoosiers-like success story in Fredericksburg these last two seasons. They've captured the imagination of the student body and the community at large, packing their tiny gym for just about each and every home game during their remarkable run and garnering admiration beyond the school walls and their hometown for their never-say-die work ethic and intensity.
It was a crazy, unrealistic thing that Battistelli said that night in the back of the bus. Or was it? Because Zerman, Brandt and Kintzer took it to heart and have helped bring it closer to reality than anyone could have ever dreamed.
"He came back and sat with us and he was just in the moment," Kintzer remembered. "He was like, 'We're gonna be this way, we're gonna be great'. We have a lot of trust in him."
They trust him, for sure. But not just because Battistelli believes in them, but because he loves them - the whole team - like they were his own flesh and blood.
He can't help it, nor does he want to. It's the way he was brought up, in an emotional, loving, hug-everybody-all-the-time family that's not shy about telling each other how they feel, in good times or bad.
"We were raised a certain way, we were always around our family," said Battistelli, who counts his brother Chris and sister Gina among his staff of assistants. "Our family was always very lovey-dovey. We were just one of those families that eat together and hug together and whatever. I can't help but interact with people I care about in the same manner."
Because of that, he's created a second family in his team, which feels about each other like Battistelli feels about his own family. Don't believe it? Check out photos from any Northern Lebanon victory in the last two years and you'll see the team in various stages of a group hug/celebration, drinking in the moment as one, not as individuals.
"We're closer than just a team and a coach," Brandt said. "We hang out with his family, he hangs out with ours."
They're even occasionally called on to help keep domestic harmony in the Battistelli household.
"He has a lot of trust in us," Zerman said with a laugh. "He tells us to remind him to get his wife flowers for Valentine's Day."
The two families have indeed meshed. Attend any Northern Lebanon game and you'll find not just Battistelli's wife Sarah and their kids in the stands, but also his parents and a slew of aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives there to support their favorite team.
It's quite a scene, really. And the love that exists among them does not go unnoticed by Battistelli's players.
"They see the sincerity. And not just from me," he said. "They see me run over to (my) mom and dad and give them a hug and a kiss. They're around my kids running on the floor and jumping on daddy. I think that conveys that it's all genuine, and I think that they like that. They like that there's a group of people they matter to so very much."
And make no mistake, Battistelli is one of those people.
"I hope that the kids see me the way I saw my dad," he said. "My dad (Ken Sr.) pushed us, all of us. He had us convinced we could do anything in the world if we tried as hard as we possibly could, and anything less than that was not acceptable. As stressful and straining as that was, there was also no one who made you feel as good when you did something well than my dad. He brought the passion in both ways. As hard as he was, he was just as loving and supportive. I guess push 'em and love 'em. You gotta do both in equal measures."
His players have seen both of those sides - the demanding side and the loving side - and responded beautifully to both. Of course they have, they're kindred spirits.
"We're a team of fighters," Brandt said. "He has the heart, but we have just as much."
"We are all afraid of failing, just as much as he is," Zerman said. "And we don't like letting people down."
They needn't worry too much about that anymore, although they'll all feel stinging disappointment if they can't put together a lengthy state playoff run. But if they go down at some point in the next two weeks, rest assured they'll go down as one.
"We are so in this together," Battistelli said. "Our vision is one that is shared by all. Good or bad, we are all pointed in the same direction at all times. It's a special group. I thank my lucky stars all the time that fate has brought us together like this. My life is so much better because they came into my world. I think at some point in their lives they'll look back and think their lives were a little better because they knew me."
Count on it. When asked to sum up the last two seasons in just a few words, Zerman, Brandt and Kintzer left no doubt about how much impact their coach and the family he helped create has had on their lives.
Their summations are as follows:
"A dream," Zerman said.
"Exhilarating," was Brandt's take.
"It's just been a thrill," Kintzer said. "We never thought it would be like this, but it is. And we love every second of it."