By Jonathan Scholles
The Budget Sports Editor

This Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, all four reigning state girls’ basketball champions – Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame (Div. I), Shaker Heights Hathaway Brown (Div. II), South Euclid Regina (Div. III), Columbus Africentric (Div. IV) – will be on hand at the Perry Reese Jr. Community Center for the seventh installment of Classic in the Country Challenge.

And, really, why wouldn’t they be? Over the past six years, the CitC has grown into the top in-season girls’ basketball event in the nation and has become a beacon for great talent, great coaching, great games, great… well, everything.

“The atmosphere is electric, the fans, the crowd… For high school, this is the best event that I’ve had a chance to go to,” said Tony Bannister, coach of Potter’s House Academy (Jacksonville, Fla.), the Classic’s blockbuster new addition to its 2010 lineup, which features five nationally ranked teams including Potter’s House.

Potter’s House (17-3 at the CitC break) plays a national schedule, but Bannister said he’s never been to an event quite as special as the Classic.

“Even though we play a national schedule, the atmosphere at Classic in the Country is so different because of the crowd,” said Bannister, whose school is bringing at least one bus-load full of fans to the Classic.

“When I got here and Tom [Jenkins] told me that the first game of the morning would be a packed house… I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it,” he added. “For a high school kid to play in this type of atmosphere before they get to college is invaluable. To me, it’s better than the state tournament.”

Potter’s House – the 2008-09 NCSAA National Champs – will face host Hiland in the nightcap on Saturday, Jan. 16 at 8:30 p.m., then play nationally ranked Toledo Start at 5 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 18. Five-foot-10 sophomore shooting guard Antoinette Bannister is scoring 22.0 ppg with 8.7 rpg to lead the Lions, who have a staggering seven nationally ranked players on their roster. Brittany Roundtree (5’7”, JR, PG) checks in with 14.6 ppg, while Shalethia Stringfield (5’7”, JR, SG) is scoring 13.6 ppg and Pittsburgh recruit Loliya Briggs (5’11”, SF) is chipping in 11.2 ppg.

“[Potter’s House] is the best team that we’ve played in my 20 years of coaching,” Hiland coach Dave Schlabach said. “They are the most talented, most athletic, the fastest, the deepest. It’s a great challenge. We have seen them a number of times, and we highly respect them.

“…The Classic in the Country crowd will really enjoy watching them.”

Bowling Green recruit Noelle Yoder (5’7”, SG) is scoring 20.0 ppg to lead the Lady Hawks (9-0), Division IV state runner-up a year ago. Hilary Weaver (5’6”, PG), a Lehigh University signee, checks in with 13.0 ppg and 8.8 apg, while Katelyn Stuckey, committed to Ohio Dominican University, is averaging 10.8 ppg with 5.6 rpg.

While Potter’s House has all the national flash, Bannister said that atmosphere definitely gives Hiland an edge.

“It’s an intriguing match-up… The energy from their crowd will definitely have them playing at a very high level,” he said. “It will be a good match-up. I watched [Hiland] play last year, and their fans were standing up. The student body were waving towels… It was like experiencing a home game at Duke. It was very intimidating. And it’s good for our kids to see that.”

Hiland will bounce from its game against Potter’s House to its CitC VII finale versus Mason on Monday, Jan. 18 at 8:30 p.m.

Mason coach Rob Matula is looking forward to his Comets’ meeting with the Lady Hawks.

“Obviously, they are extremely talented – their program speaks for itself,” Mason coach Rob Matula said. “We’re going to prepare as we do most of the time. We know who their better players are. We know what they do. But in reality, we have to worry about what we do well and making sure that we’re doing what we need to do in order to be in a competitive situation.

“If we are right there in the end, giving ourselves a chance to win, that’s all we can ask for.” Mason (7-3) is led by super sophomore Brianna Glover (6’1”,PF) with 10.7 ppg and 4.2 rpg, while Cincinnati recruit Sarah Hunter (5’6”, PG) is close behind with 9.2 ppg and 2 apg.

“We have some athletic guards and some young big girls,” Matula said, summing up his team, which also stars the post duo of 6-foot-2
sophomore Keri Kleist and 6-foot-1 freshman Kayla McDowell, along with seniors Kayla Lamotte (5’9”) and Hillary Melnick (5’8”).

“We’re big, but we’re really, really young. People think that we’re a seasoned group. But in reality, we’re not… We’re a work in progress, and this allows us to see where we’re at,” Matula said.

That size is a little daunting, Schlabach said.

“What they bring is something that we don’t see on a daily basis, and that’s a tremendous amount of athleticism,” said Schlabach. “They actually combine a lot of size. Whereas Potter’s House is 5’10” and quick, these guys are 6’1” and 6’2” and quick. They will bring a different style but be just as athletic and better inside.”

Speaking of size, Mason is officially the largest high school in Ohio, dwarfing Hiland in overall attendance, 2,229 to 194.

Prior to tangling with Hiland, Mason will play Tay’ler Mingo, Therany Dunnigan and defending Division III state champion Regina Sunday at 5:15 p.m.

“We’re going to go up there to win,” Matula said. “But we also know that this will help us better ourselves and give us an opportunity to see what we need to work on in order to get ready for the tournament.”

Matula said he hopes the notoriety his team gains from competing in the Classic helps catapult Mason back into the Division I spotlight, something it had a decade ago when the Comets won their first state title in 2000.

“Mason, at one time, was a pretty big place in regards to girls’ basketball,” the fourth-year head coach said. “We want to get our program back to that level, and having the opportunity to play [at the Classic] and the competition we will be playing against just shows that people are recognizing where we’re at.

“By no means do we think we’re a finished product. But playing against this competition will allow us to get better.”

Schlabach said in order to get anywhere in the tournament, Hiland will have to beat a team like Potter’s House and Mason.

“We know in order to get anywhere in the tournament, we are going to have to beat a couple really athletic teams. So we schedule accordingly in the Classic… That’s a nice advantage we have. We get to go and find the opponents that will best help us down the road,” he said.

West Holmes (7-3) will face North Canton Hoover (7-1) Monday, Jan. 18 at 1:30 p.m. in a local game that should generate much interest.

Other blockbuster CitC VII teams include: Division IV state champion Africentric vs. Canton McKinley,
Sat., Jan. 16 at 1:30 p.m.; University, N.J. vs. Regina, Jan. 16 at 3:15; Div. II state champ Hathaway Brown vs. four-time defending Div. I champion Mount Notre Dame, Jan. 16 at 6:45; Hathaway Brown vs. Lakota West, Sun., Jan. 17 at 3:30 p.m.; Mount Notre Dame vs. Toledo Start, Jan. 17 at 8:45.

The Classic, Schlabach said, continues to exceed expectations.

“We’re ready to go… We have over 1,000 rooms reserved by people coming in. It’s going to be a phenomenal weekend again,” the Hiland coach said. “We keep saying we think it’s the best ever, and we really do. This is the best line-up we’ve ever had. We have more college coaches coming, more media, more fans, Marvin Blanks [Martin Luther King Jr. impersonator]… We’re looking forward to it.”