Keene senior Nick Maiella (left) looks back as senior Andy Colbert catches a pass during boys basketball practice at Keene High on Wednesday evening.

Keene Blackbirds

Coach: Matt Azzaro (first year)

Last season: 4-3; lost to Alvirne in Division I preliminary round

Top players lost: Christian Oxendine, Alex Charles

Top returners: Senior Nick Maiella, junior Lucas Malay, junior Sam Timmer

Newcomers to watch: Senior Andy Colbert (transfer from Monadnock)

First game: Dec. 10 at Nashua North

Outlook: Keene comes into the season with a brand new coach and without its two leading scorers from last year, but don’t fret, Blackbirds fans. Senior Nick Maiella will step into a bigger role this year, with junior Lucas Malay and senior transfer Andy Colbert also playing important roles. Also, new head coach Matt Azzaro has been coaching around the state since 1994 at both the high school and college level, and has won three state titles throughout his tenure, so he knows how to win. There will certainly be an adjustment period, especially with the shortened preseason this year, but if Azzaro can get his team and coaching staff on board with the new system quickly, there’s no reason for the Blackbirds not to build up a decent record and potentially a playoff spot in Division I.

Coach’s thoughts:

“It’s going to be a young team. It’ll be good for teaching. The goal is to compete at the highest level in New Hampshire.”

“The biggest thing is that we’re going to be tough. My expectation is not to make the state tournament, it’s to win the state tournament. I expect my players to push themselves and play harder than they’ve ever played. We need to be tough and believe that we can win. I don’t think there’s any team in the state that’s unbeatable.”

Monadnock Huskies

Coach: Jim Hill (eighth year)

Last season: 8-1; lost to Conant in Division III preliminary round

Top players lost: Jake Kidney, Nate Doyle, Tyler Hebert

Top returners: Senior Kevin Putnam, senior Anthony Poanessa, senior Carson Shanks, senior Connor Branon, senior Lucas Smith

Newcomers to watch: Gavin Gomarlo, Kaden Smith, Alden Gibson, Miguel Cintron, Griffin Beede

First game: Dec. 10 at Gilford High School

Outlook: The Monadnock Huskies will likely come into the postseason as an under-the-radar type team after losing big names like Jake Kidney, Nate Doyle and Tyler Hebert to graduation. Now, the Huskies will lean on a roster that has been spending the last few years learning from those three stars. “It’s their turn,” as eighth-year head coach Jim Hill put it. Kevin Putnam returns for his senior season and classmate Anthony Poanessa will have to step into a larger role this year. It’ll be a team effort to replace the three lost seniors from last year’s roster, but Hill believes this is the group to do it. Seniors Carson Shanks, Connor Branon and Lucas Smith will all put on a Husky uniform again to round out the senior leadership. Hill said the starting lineup will be fluid, as he’ll be relying on everyone on the roster to get the job done this year. Monadnock starts the season by playing Gilford, Kearsarge, then Conant, so the team is jumping right into the fire and will quickly learn what it takes to compete with the best in Division III.

Coach’s thoughts:

“The key word is chemistry. The guys are really in tune. They are so willing to learn and listen. They’re so coachable. They’re unselfish, they move the ball. They don’t care about themselves, they care about the team and the program. They’re accepting their roles.”

“We have a long way to go in terms of development, but it’s a process. We know where we need to be at the end of the season.”

“It’s a true program. We’ve had guys patiently waiting to replace those lost seniors for years. The guys understand they system, and now it’s their turn. At this point, we feel well-rounded and balanced with our rotation.”

“There’s a different vibe and focus this year. The players in the that gym want to be in that gym and want to play for Monadnock. It’s a pleasure walking into the gym. You can sense that they want to learn. There’s that trust between coaches and players.”

ConVal Cougars

Coach: Jason Starr (first year)

Last season: 2-5; lost to Lebanon in Division II second round

Top players lost: Wyatt Davis, Isaiah Michaels

Top returners: Owen Michaels, Christian Buffum, Austin Knight

Outlook: Jason Starr steps in as the new head coach of the Cougars, taking over for Leo Gershgorin, who is now the head coach at Alvirne. Starr — a previous head coach at Mascenic — was previously a member of Gershgorin’s staff and has worked with these student-athletes for quite some time now, leading to a smooth transition between coaches. Led by point guard Owen Michaels and forward Christian Buffum, the Cougars should be in the conversation for a Division II final four berth come February. ConVal will likely turn to its fast-paced offense to try and make that happen in a much more normal basketball season compared to last year.

First game: Dec. 10 vs. Hanover

Conant Orioles

Coach: Eric Saucier (14th year)

Last season: 8-4; lost to Hopkinton in second round of Division III tournament

Top players lost: Colson Seppala, Hayden Ketola

Top returners: Senior Garrett Somero, senior Jacson Cross, senior Malique Motuzas, sophomore Manny Hodgson

Newcomers to watch: Freshman Ben Sawyer, freshman Jared Nagle

Outlook: Conant lost a good bit of talent from last season, but head coach Eric Saucier has confidence that his underclassmen have learned enough to come in and compete with anyone in Division III. Seniors Garret Somero, Jacson Cross and Malique Motuzas will be the next group to step up for the Orioles, while sophomore Manny Hodgson and freshmen Ben Sawyer and Jarden Nagle will all continue to learn and grow with the program. Saucier said Somero has been the most vocal leader so far, but Cross and Motuzas are stepping into that leadership role to help continue the tradition of winning at Conant. The Orioles will run a fast-paced team, pressing and running the ball up the court, and will use its bench depth to continue to constant pressure on their opposition.

Coach’s thoughts:

- “Last year we only had eight on varsity, now we have 13. The rotation will be there. Guys are competing hard for those varsity spots. I haven’t had a team this deep in a while.”

- “Guys know what to expect when they come [to Conant]. The upperclassmen hold the underclassmen to that standard. They learn, then the next year that group teaches the next group. Always tough losing seniors, but the next group knows what to do.”

- “In order to get to where we want to go, we need these underclassmen to step up. It’s going to take all of them.”

Fall Mountain Wildcats:

Coach: Mitch Harrison (second year)

Last season: 2-12; lost to Kearsarge in Division III preliminary round

Top players lost: Xander Ford, Tristan Spencer

Top players returning: Senior Brady Elliott, junior Kyle Fisher, senior Hudson Willett, senior Jack Wildes

Newcomers to watch: Freshman Ledger Willett, sophomore Carmine Sweeney, sophomore Owen Riendeau

First game: Dec. 10 at Campbell High School

Outlook: The Fall Mountain Wildcats came into last season with a brand-new head coach trying to get settled in during a season that was anything but normal. Now, Mitch Harrison comes into his second year with more experience and a core group that it is stronger, faster and more adept to the game, looking to make some noise in Division III. The senior crew of Brady Elliott, Hudson Willett and Jack Wildes will take charge this year, with junior Kyle Fisher building on his starting role from last season. Harrison said defense will be a focus this season to supplement the offense and compete in Division III.

Coach’s thoughts:

- “We have a pretty good core of players coming back. It’s pretty encouraging. To a large extent, what’s going to drive our team are the returners.”

- “We need [Brady Elliott] to play a bigger role. He’s a stronger this year and played lots of offseason ball. Looking forward to him playing a key role.”

- “Last year was a tough year to take over a program. It was disruptive and not normal. I think this year, there is a greater degree of normalcy. I’m hoping we can gel a little more as a team, learn to share the ball and understand that value.”

- “I want us to develop a defensive identity. Players need to buy into defense.”

Hinsdale Pacers

Coach: Carl Anderson

Last season: 3-6; lost to Holy Family in preliminary round of Division IV tournament

Top players lost: Arth Patel, Jason Cowan, Bobby LeClair

Top returners: Sophomore Brayden Eastman, junior Noah Pangelinan, junior Aiden Davis, junior Tanner Hammond, junior Alex Shaink

Newcomers to watch: Senior Micheal Lugo, junior Josh Southwick, freshman John Winter

First game: Dec. 10 at Mount Royal Academy

Outlook: This year’s Pacers team will be focused on its defense, like last year, in hopes that the offense will come with it. Despite losing some key pieces on offense from last year, Hinsdale brings back five young players who will gain an extra year of experience on the court. Last year, Hinsdale was stuck competing against upper-division teams — which coach Carl Anderson sees as a positive coming into this year. Now this season, the Pacers will be playing back down in their own division, hoping to stay competitive throughout the year.

Coach’s thoughts:

- “The five returners all do different things. We’ve got some choices. Hopefully if someone is cold, someone else can step up.”

- “Our Division III schedule [last year] helped us grow and we found out we can compete in some of those games.”

- “This is a group of kids that have been playing together for seven or eight years now. We’ll have some bumps and low points this year, like everyone else, but they have the ‘want’ this year. It’s an opportunity for us to come out and grow in our own division.”

{div class=”asset-tagline text-muted”}Chris Detwiler can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1411, or cdetwiler@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris — Detwiler.{/div}