By Mike Whaley
Going forward in basketball, Tony Martinez is always reminded by what came before. It keeps the fire burning.
A former hoop star at Pittsfield High School and Plymouth State University, Martinez, 44, is embracing his first high school head coaching gig in Belmont, guiding the boys varsity basketball program.
Martinez’s basketball journey has been neither traditional nor smooth. His eight years of high school and college basketball were marked by an unusually crazy stretch of seven consecutive years with a different coach – four at Pittsfield and three at PSU.
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Two games into his senior year at Pittsfield, he broke his foot in a game against Newmarket and missed the rest of the season.
To say there have been challenges for Martinez would be an understatement. While there has been some regret, he has used his experiences to be a better person and coach. He is applying that experience to his post at Belmont.
“I can relate,” said Martinez, who replaced long-time coach Jim Cilley. “My experience as a player and all the ups and downs I’ve experienced helps me as far as relating to the kids. I was there once.”
Martinez said he knows what it’s like to not want to do homework and just focus on basketball. “I know all the little intricacies so I can communicate with the guys better,” he said. “I’m comfortable with my basketball knowledge. You always have to learn. You always have to study.”
Martinez graduated from Pittsfield HS in 1997. He played at PSU from 1997 to 2001, scoring over 1,000 points and twice earning Little East Conference First Team honors.
After Plymouth, he coached for two years at Brewster Academy under Jason Smith, his coach during his final year at Pittsfield. After taking some time off, he got back into coaching at Plymouth State University as an assistant for one season (2014-15).
At that point, the eldest of his two sons, Keegan, was showing interest in basketball, so he started coaching him at the youth level. He continues to do that with his younger son, Evan.
In 2016, Martinez joined his friend and former teammate, Jay Darrah, the head coach at Pittsfield, as an assistant. He did that for three seasons, which included 2017-18 in which the Panthers won the program’s first state championship (a 43-40 win over Newmarket in the D-IV final).
Darrah said Martinez’s presence immediately resonated with the Panthers. “Any time you have someone come into the program that has his name up on the 1,000-point board, and his name is up on the 1,000-point board at Plymouth State where we go every year to watch the tournament played, he instantly gains stability with the players,” Darrah said. “They look up to him. Players that worked with Tony had instant admiration. When you have that admiration for someone like that, you play a little harder, you work a little harder. When he was in there working with the big guys at practices was huge. The stuff he did with Brandon Bojarsky and Josh Whittier was vital to our tournament run. His experience as a player gave the players more reason to believe in what he was saying. There was more buy-in.”
Martinez’s return to Pittsfield resonated with him as much as it resonated with the players. “Winning that state championship gave me closure on what happened my senior year,” he said. “It’s kind of corny, but it’s the truth.”
It also opened his eyes to coaching. “Winning that state championship with one of my best friends and his son really motivated me to want to be a varsity basketball coach,” Martinez said.
Before Pittsfield, Martinez had been content to be an assistant or, as he called it, a “basketball mercenary.” In that role, he would simply float around to various programs helping their big guys to improve their game while imparting his wisdom on his college experience.
Also, there was a point when he was starting a family with his wife, Jodie, and building their first home, so the mercenary coaching gig fit his schedule.
But after his second Pittsfield experience, he was ready for the next step.
PLAYING THE GAME
Martinez grew up in Barnstead. He recalls playing hotly contested games against neighboring Pittsfield teams, which featured Jay Darrah and other future high school teammates. “Middle school is where I decided I wanted to become a good basketball player,” he said.
Which he did.
He started as a freshman at Pittsfield, and by his junior season had transformed into one of the best players in Class M/Division III. Martinez averaged 28 points and 15 rebounds per game, hitting his 1,000th career point. He drew some local NCAA Division II interest and plenty from D-III.
But when he broke his foot as a senior, that interest melted away. “Paul Hogan, to his credit, was the one coach that let me heal – not just physically, but mentally,” Martinez said. “But that was a very hard thing to swallow not playing. It was hard.”
Jason Smith, who was in his first year as a head high school coach at the time in Pittsfield, remembers how Martinez handled the situation. “He quickly transitioned from a player to almost a student assistant coach,” said Smith, who has coached at Brewster since 2000 where he has transformed the Bobcat program into a national prep power. “He was still involved on a daily basis. He went to all the practices, all the games. He asked about helping with film breakdown, scouting reports. When he faced adversity that’s where he showed his future capacity of being a coach.”
Smith also coached Martinez in AAU as well as playing a small role in getting him to PSU when he was a Hogan assistant at Plymouth.
Hogan did not pressure Martinez like several other local schools did. It also helped that Martinez wanted to play baseball as well in college. He had played two years for the American Legion team in Laconia coached by PSU’s long-time baseball coach Dennis McManus, so that was another mark in Plymouth’s favor. “I mostly chose Plymouth because Paul was such a great guy,” Martinez said. “I wanted to play for him.”
“It made him a stronger person,” Darrah said of the injury. “I think everything happens for a reason. It made him stay local. It made him have a successful career at Plymouth.”
Going to PSU proved to be a great decision by Martinez, although the coaching carousel was similar to Pittsfield’s where he played for four coaches (Kyle Hodsdon, Matt Swedberg, Dan Peters and Smith) in four years. Hogan left after his freshman year. Jim Ferry was his coach as a sophomore. Stability arrived with John Scheinman who was at the helm for his final two seasons.
By his own admission, Martinez did not have a great freshman year. “I played, but I didn’t play as much as I should have,” he said. “That’s cliche and not always good to hear. I always thought I could do more.”
Hogan left after Martinez’s freshman year; eventually elevating the men’s hoop program at NHTI Concord. Ferry came in and helped to set Martinez’s course for the remainder of his college career. He was still playing baseball at that point, but Ferry made it clear what he needed to do. He told Martinez he was going to start with four seniors, but he needed to drop baseball and focus on basketball.
“I credit Jim Ferry with really turning my career around at Plymouth,” Martinez said. “He made me really zero in and focus on basketball. He really taught me what work ethic at the college level needed to be.” Ferry is currently a NCAA Division I head coach at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Martinez did not have a traditional basketball body. To look at him in high school and even college, he resembled a football linebacker more than a basketball power forward. In high school he was 6-foot-3 and weighed 235-240 pounds. When he got to college he was able to trim himself down to 215 by his junior season.
“I was always a bigger kid,” he said. “I really had to model my game after (former NBA star) Charles Barkley. I loved Barkley when I was a kid. … I was undersized, but used everything to my advantage. I was a small-college Barkley. The Keene Sentinel dubbed me Barkley of the Little East.”
Martinez averaged 20.5 and 21.6 points per game, respectively, over his final two seasons when he developed his jump shot and added some three-point range to his repertoire. “With my inside game, that opened a lot of things up,” he said.
Martinez ended his PSU career with 1,556 points, still good for fifth all-time at the school. In 2013, he was inducted into the PSU Athletic Hall of Fame.
COACHING COMES INTO FOCUS
Martinez was ready to make the leap. When the Belmont position opened up, he applied. It felt good. He lived with his family in Canterbury, a town that sends its high school students to Belmont. In addition, his mom is a Belmont native and his late grandfather was one of the original school board members who formed the Shaker Regional School District in the 1960s. “There’s some history and some lineage there,” Martinez said.
He also knew the kids. He’d been watching the current seniors play basketball since they were in eighth grade. “I knew of them,” he said. “I knew what they could do on the floor. I’ve watched them achieve. I’ve watched them underachieve. I’ve watched the whole gambit. I had a really good knowledge of what I was getting, coming into the program.”
Belmont went 8-10 last year, losing in the first round of the tournament at Campbell.
The first thing Martinez did before he applied was get the green light from his son, Keegan – a 6-foot-5 sophomore forward. “Before I submitted anything I asked him point blank ‘would you mind if I put this in?’” Martinez recalled. “That was the number one permission I needed because he’s the one who is going to have to deal with me. We have an honest and open relationship. If he said ‘no’, I wouldn’t have applied. I think he was excited. I think he knows what I can potentially bring to the table.”
Martinez also called up former Farmington HS coach Mike Lee, who guided the Tigers from 1977 to 1998. He coached both of his sons, Josh and Tim. “I’ve always respected Mike,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I have an internal hatred for Farmington. I’m still a Pittsfield Panther and I know what they did to me for four years. I’ve always respected Coach Lee. He’s one of those guys I would have loved to have played for.”
Martinez wanted to know how Lee dealt with his boys. “How did you do it, coach?” he asked. “What were the things that you did? He talked to me about rules and things they had as a family to make sure it wasn’t basketball all the time. I’ve taken a lot of that to heart. I’ve encouraged both my boys who are super athletes to do other things. I really think that is key. When you coach your child don’t make it about the sport all of the time.”
While some might think coaching your son is a difficult thing, Martinez feels the opposite. “I think it only amplifies it and makes it better, honestly,” he said. “I learned that by coaching with Jay (Darrah). I learned how to coach your son, coaching with Jay. I learned the dos and don’ts. Those were three huge seasons being with him.”
Martinez has no problem seeking advice. He has also reached out to Smith and Dave Gagnon, an assistant coach at the Holderness School. “It’s always a learning process,” he said.
“My biggest thing is getting to know the guys,” said Martinez, who runs the family business, Loudon Building Supply. “Teaching them and showing them the togetherness and things you need to be a championship caliber team. Our team motto is ‘We are one.’ We just want to come together and be one as a team.”
Martinez saw that at Pittsfield when the Panthers won the championship in 2018. “I’ve never been around a group of kids that wanted to win for each other so bad,” he said. “I think you see that in small towns. You grew up with each other. Belmont is the same.”
One of Martinez’s main projects is building a cohesive unit. “The guys have responded to me great,” he said. “We’ve had great open gyms. We had a great summer. Tryouts were phenomenal. I’ve had texts from the guys telling me how excited they are. That for me shows that we’re pointed in the right direction.”
Tony Martinez is finally a head coach after 20 or so years marinating at various levels as an assistant and an independent instructor. It’s strange to think of him as a “first-year head coach.”
“I think because he’s been part of so many programs, he’s probably been able to take a little bit from each coach he’s been a part of and become his own coach,” Darrah said. “He’s not your stereotypical first-year coach. He’s a coach with a lot of experience as a player and a lot of experience on the bench as an assistant coach.
“People talk about it before sometimes, great players don’t always make good coaches,” Darrah said. “In Tony’s case, I don’t think that’s going to be the case. I think his experience as a high school player, his experience as a great collegiate player, is going to translate to the high school game. He sees how the game is played. He sees how the game works and how it unfolds. That’s going to give him a step up on a lot of the other coaches.”
Smith agrees. “It’s long overdue. I expected Tony to be coaching his own team years ago. He’s more than ready. I have no doubt he will be successful at Belmont.”