By Dave Mast
According to both Tom Jenkins, director of the Ohio Girls Basketball Report, and Hiland coach Dave Schlabach, the significance of the Classic weekend was something that they could have never foreseen when they got together seven years ago to build the model for what would become Classic in the Country Challenge. They had no idea they were putting together a weekend extravaganza that would become second to none in the nation, which would not only showcase Ohio’s girls’ basketball talent, but also honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as perpetuate the legacy of Hiland legendary boys basketball Coach Perry Reese Jr.
“Nowhere in our wildest dreams did we think it would become the national phenomena that is has become,” said Schlabach. “We didn’t ever think we would have a waiting list two years out to compete in this event. We never dreamed we would have 170-plus college coaches ascending upon Holmes County in the dead of winter; we didn’t think we’d have more than 40 members of the media cover this event; and never in our wildest imagination did we think we would have 20,000 basketball fans ascend to the Reese Center battling for a seat.”
And the response they have received from the teams, officials and college coaches who have attended the event have backed up just how impressive this event is.
“In all of my years as a head coach in girls basketball, the Classic in the Country is the best thing to ever come along to promote the girls’ game,” said Reggie Lee, head coach of the Brookhaven Bearcats. “I absolutely love coming here. It’s an electric atmosphere that is about more than just basketball.”
Lee sums up what not just the coaches and players feel, but about the viewing public, which has flocked to the Perry Reese Center in Berlin to participate in a weekend designed to not simply showcase the talents of the girls, but to honor Dr. King and former Hiland boys basketball coach Perry Reese Jr. for their accomplishments.
“This is the best event in the country for high school girls basketball, and we figure we’re going to get a battle from Hiland, no matter where we are,” said Africentric coach Will McKinney, whose Nubians team has built a tremendous respect and rivalry for the Hiland program over only a few short years.
“The Classic in the Country represents a chance for the kids to experience great lessons through both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and through what Coach Perry Reese achieved,” said Andy Booth, coach of the Wadsworth Grizzlies. “Plus, we are always honored to be invited to something as special as Classic in the Country. As long as we are invited back, we will continue to graciously accept the invitation.”
Newark coach J.R. Shumate had an opportunity to coach against Perry Reese in his days as head coach of the Ridgewood Generals boys team in the late 1990s. He said having the opportunity to return and play in something that honors Coach Reese is special.
“It is an honor to be asked to come back here in a weekend of this magnitude and be a part of something that recognizes the achievements that Perry made,” said Shumate. “He was a great person.”
duPont Manual head coach Stacy Pendleton, who heads up one of Kentucky’s best girls basketball programs, hadn’t heard of Classic in the Country Challenge until University of Purdue assistant coach Martin Clapp spoke to him about it during a recruiting trip. Clapp had nothing but high praise for the event, and told Pendleton, if it was the only thing he did this year, he needed to find a way to get his team into the Classic.
“Marty just gushed about the entire weekend, not just from a basketball standpoint, but just from being an incredibly entertaining trip as a whole. I started making contacts, and when Tom Jenkins sent me that huge folder of information, I was absolutely blown away. Now, we can’t wait to get there to experience it.”
Mark Alberts, coach of the Orrville Red Riders, only had to go a few minutes to get to Amish Country, but even so, his players are anticipating the event already. “It’s just a special weekend, where as a fan, you know you’ll get to see some incredible basketball, as a team, you know you’ll be challenged playing under some pretty intense pressure in front of big crowds, and there’s a lot for the kids to look forward to.”
“It is exciting to play in that atmosphere,” said Nikki Kremer-Drew, coach of Lakota East. “It’s electric. I’ve only been there as a spectator, but you can sense what a thrill it is for the players and fans to see great basketball, and it’s neat to know that our kids will get to experience a new way of life in Amish Country.”
So with coaches, teams and both rabid fans and loyal hoops enthusiasts more than ready for a wonderful weekend of showcasing Ohio’s best basketball, in addition to honoring both King and Reese, Martin Luther King Jr. weekend is set to explode in Amish Country.
“This is our way of honoring two great men, while providing some pretty doggone good basketball for fans,“ said Jenkins. “We are excited to be able to present something that we feel is very good for this community, for girls basketball and for promoting acceptance and unity.”