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Matt Azzaro, Keene High boys basketball head coach, leads his team in a drill at practice on Wednesday night at Keene High.

Fans of New Hampshire basketball might know the name Matt Azzaro.

The long-time assistant coach at various programs across the state is now taking the next step, filling the head coaching role for the boys basketball team at Keene High School this season.

It’s Azzaro’s first head coaching position, after serving as an assistant coach at the high school and college levels since 1994, while also coaching AAU ball in between. His coaching career began at Keene State College, before spending time at Exeter, Merrimack, Daniel Webster College, Nashua North, Bishop Guertin and Portsmouth.

Azzaro — a Keene High and Keene State graduate — worked with various state championship teams and coaches, winning two at Portsmouth and one at Bishop Guertin.

Now he hopes to bring that kind of success to Keene.

“Over the years, I’ve just been a sponge,” Azzaro said. “I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel here. I’m working to make all my previous experience work for us. The goal is to compete at the highest level in New Hampshire.”

Azzaro understands the challenges of stepping into a new program, especially since the preseason was cut down significantly this year. The shortened preseason will give him and the players less time to get acclimated with each other.

“It’s going to be a learning experience for me as well as the players,” Azzaro said. “It’s going to be fun. I’m looking forward to it. This is a good group of kids. Just getting to know them has been great.”

Keene athletic director Mike Atkins knew Azzaro’s experience around New Hampshire basketball would be an asset for the program.

“[Matt] knows the New Hampshire basketball community well,” Atkins said. “He has some good connections across the state. He’s demonstrated that he has the right philosophy and he has his priorities straight. He cares about the high school students, more than just around basketball.

Atkins added that he feels Azzaro is more valuable than just his on-the-court coaching experience. He comes in as someone who can help the student-athletes grow off the court as well, Atkins said.

“We feel like he’s the right guy at the right time,” Atkins added.

Azzaro replaces Kevin Ritter, who led the program for five years before stepping down to spend more time with family.

Ritter spent time in the program as the JV coach before eventually moving up to varsity.

“Kevin did a terrific job,” Atkins said. “He brought our program to a level that it hasn’t been in a while. I think Matt can continue that.”

After losing some talented seniors from last year, Azzaro is going to lean on senior Nick Maiella to step into a leadership role and lead the Blackbirds to the playoffs.

Azzaro’s attitude is bringing “toughness” to the court each and every game, something the team seems to be buying into already.

“He just brings a lot of good things,” Maiella said. “A lot of positivity. He’s very individualized. He’ll work with you one-on-one and creates a good relationship with each and every one of us. That’s appreciated.”

“He definitely brings an attitude of toughness and hard work,” said junior Sam Timmer. “We want to outwork everyone. He’s a super smart guy, knows his stuff. We’re just doing our best to absorb as much as we can.”

The Blackbirds open up the season at Nashua North Friday at 6:30 p.m.

Read the full boys basketball season preview in the weekend edition of The Sentinel.

Chris Detwiler can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1411, or cdetwiler@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Detwiler.