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High school sports

Iowa farmer Battani ready to plant, nurture success for Lion athletes

Willing to get hands dirty, new BAHS athletic director/assistant principal has taught in four countries
By Mark Haskell | Jul 14, 2020
Photo by: Mark Haskell New Belfast Area High School athletic director Matt Battani.

Belfast — The hopeful start to the 2020-2021 Belfast Area High School athletic seasons began on Monday, July 6, as student-athletes set early alarms for 7 a.m. workouts.

At the conclusion of the first day of the summer fitness program, the athletes formed a large circle — doing their best to maintain social distancing — as coaches shared positive reinforcement and instruction.

While many of those adult faces were familiar to the youngsters, one unfamiliar face got the chance to introduce himself to the assembled group of early-risers.

Newly-named Lion athletic director Matt Battani was not only on hand, but also worked through some of the conditioning, strength and agility drills with the students in compliance with Phase 1 of the Maine Principals’ Association’s four-step plan to allow high school sports to hopefully return in the fall.

The 39-year-old Camden resident, who has a bevy of teaching and coaching experience, said he was pleased with Monday’s turnout of roughly 40 student-athletes and anticipated higher numbers as the days moved forward.

“Prepping to open up the workouts has not been difficult,” he said. “Because the MPA gave us excellent guidelines to follow. And it’s just a matter of reading and implementing those guidelines. I’m excited so many kids showed up. It indicates to me that our coaching staff has good relationships with the kids, [and] they’re reaching out to kids and the kids are eager to get back.”

Battani, who has taken over for former athletic director Terry Kenniston, is a 1998 graduate of Ballard High School in Huxley, Iowa.

“Ballard is a lot like Belfast,” he said. “There were five small towns that came together to make a school district. It’s pretty similar in population about 100 to 120 per graduating class. A lot of rural communities come together to make a school district.”

Battani later went onto Iowa State University, where he majored in political science and history.

He has athletic backgrounds in football, wrestling, track and field and baseball as far back as middle school, but, being “a farm kid” in middle America, gave up track and baseball so he could focus more on the family business. Battani said his family farm spans back to 1846.

“There was working and pressures on the farm to get things done, which made the summers hard,” he said. “So my main sports going through were football and wrestling. Football was always a challenge because of the harvest, but I loved it, so I played football. Wrestling was easy because it was winter and come spring it was time to work.”

Battani may have loved football, but he thrived in wrestling as his prowess on the mats saw him walk onto the wrestling team at Iowa State (Iowa is a hot bed for football and wrestling). He placed fourth at states his senior year of high school in the 135-pound class, with he and the three wrestlers that finished ahead of him all going onto Division I wrestling programs.

“Three of them were undefeated and I came in right behind those guys,” he said. “It was a tough bracket that year. The guys that got first and second were All-Americans. I did the best I could do.”

Battani walked on at Iowa State University, which was led by legendary coach Bobby Douglas. He was able to roll on the mats with teammates such as Cael Sanderson — who went 159-0 with the Cyclones and went on to earn an Olympic gold — and Joe Heskett, who was an NCAA champion and four-time All-American.

Cole Sanderson, older brother of Cael, was one of Battani’s wrestling partners.

“He was obviously in the lineup, and I was a training partner,” he said. “I wasn’t cracking the lineup.”

Battani's nephew, Tate, also wrestles for the Cyclones.

“I get chills [thinking about it],” he said. “He’s training in the same room I trained in, wrestling in the same open tournaments. He’s competing against the same programs. It’s really exciting.”

Battani has been a teacher since 2002 and has taught for 15 years in four countries.

Battani completed his student-teaching at the American Overseas School of Rome and also taught in Germany and Missouri, in addition to serving as the athletic director at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong. In addition, he was a wrestling coach during his time in Missouri and coached track and cross country in Germany.

His journey turned to Maine recently when Battani’s partner, Stephanie, who works at Athena Health, “had a chance to transfer her position to Belfast and I thought moving to Maine was a great idea.”

“I got a fantastic job doing what I love to do in a great school right down the road from where she works. Things lined up really, really nicely. I’m very excited to be here. There’s a lot of strength in this athletic program. There’s a lot of stuff to build on. The work of Terry Kenniston coming before and a fantastic coaching staff that’s been building programs for years, I want to come in and get that up and running as soon as possible.”

Battani said the challenge going forward at BAHS and “as a community is to make changes based on the realities we’re facing in 2020.”

“Any time you change people’s behaviors and habits, it’s a learning process,” he said. “But I’ve lived in malaria-filled countries where you assume every mosquito has malaria, I’ve lived around cholera, I’ve lived around typhoid. What you do is you change your habits and change your behaviors to match the reality of where you are. Dealing with COVID is a challenge, but it’s not an insurmountable challenge. I believe we can do these workouts safely and without transmission if we follow CDC and MPA guidelines as well as the NFHS sports medicine committee.”

Battani also enjoys running, kayaking, writing, reading, cooking and gardening, with the latter entry on that list unsurprising given his background in the family business.

“I grew up on a farm,” he said. “If my hands are in the dirt, I don’t know, something feels right.”

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