By CHRISTY JOHNSON
Daily Record Sports Writer

The phrase “Where champions compete” is often used by Classic in the Country organizers to describe the one-of-a-kind girls basketball tournament held at Hiland’s Perry Reese Jr. Community Center every January.

With a 29-team field, including 22 seniors who’ve committed to Div. I schools, ready to set foot on the court in this year’s classic, those three words couldn’t be more true.

Three local schools, Hiland (9-0), Smithville (7-1) and West Holmes (8-3), will be in the mix at the seventh annual CitC, with hopes to see how they stack up against highly competitive teams.

Hiland will face arguably its toughest CitC opponent yet in nationally ranked Potter’s House Christian Academy from Jacksonville, Fla.

As of Jan. 3, ESPN Rise Magazine listed the Lions as the 42nd best team in the country.

Led by 5-foot-11 small forward Loliya Briggs, who has committed to the University of Pittsburgh, and a talented junior class, Potter’s House will be the ultimate test for the Hawks.

“We have two big games in one weekend, which is the same thing we are going to see on the tournament trail,” said Hiland coach Dave Schlabach. “We try and get them used to the pressure that they are going to face come tournament time.”

The Hawks’ other matchup against Div. I powerhouse Mason, is the Classic’s final game on Monday at 8:30 p.m.

Mason’s weapons include junior point guard Sarah Hunter, verbally committed to play at Cincinnati, and senior guard Kayla Lamotte, who will play at Morehead.

Hiland, still perfect on the season, returns four of its five starters from last year’s 26-2 team, including Bowling Green recruit Noelle Yoder and Lehigh signee Hilary Weaver.

Yoder currently leads the Hawks in scoring, pouring in 20.3 points per game, while Weaver next, adding 14 points to go along with her nine assists per game.

Though Hiland has dominated its schedule thus far, Schlabach admits the team is “still reeling” from the loss of senior wing Mykeila Mast, who is out for the season with a knee injury suffered in the preseason.

“We don’t have a replacement for what she gave us, especially defensively,” Schlabach said. “She is also a very athletic scorer and we are still looking for that, too. But, we have kids that have a shot to be that way.

“This weekend should help us hopefully bridge some of those gaps,” he added. “I think we still have a lot of question marks.”

From a team that hosts the Classic to a team playing in its first, Smithville will look to leave its mark and represent the Wayne County Athletic League while doing so.

“This is one of the premier invitational events in the country for girls basketball,” Smithville coach Mike Miller said. “It is always so well run. It should be a great experience for our kids and will give them the opportunity to play a team we normally wouldn’t.”

That team would be Westlake, a Div. I school on Monday at 10 a.m. The Demons are led by 6-2 forward Kalpana Beach, who as a junior has already verbally committed to the University of Notre Dame.

Beach is the Westlake standout, but the Demons also start two other girls who are over 6-feet, which means the Smithies will get a height matchup they have yet to see this season.

“We have some size this year (6-foot forwards Jenna Pew and Tara Schaffter), but they’re even taller than us,” said Smithville coach Mike Miller. “It will be a matchup we’re not accustomed to. But I know our girls can compete. It should be a good game.”

West Holmes, the only other area team to play in the Classic every year, will have a lot on its plate as it takes on Div. I North Canton Hoover on Monday at 1:30 p.m.

While the highlight of the weekend is no doubt the Class A girls basketball, there is a bigger message throughout the event, one of peace and unity.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy has been the focus of the tournament, and will be in the forefront even more this year as nationally-acclaimed impersonator Marvin Blanks will perform Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on Saturday immediately after the 6:45 p.m. game.

“At the Classic in the Country, the games are merely the vehicle by which we conduct a weekend of remembrance in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and to perpetuate the legacy of coach Perry Reese Jr.,” said Classic director Tom Jenkins, mentioning the former Hiland boys coach who died of cancer in 2000.