By Jonathan Scholles
The Budget Sports Editor

Three of the four reigning state champions will be on-hand at the Perry Reese Jr. Community Center this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend for the eighth installment of the Classic in the Country.  Over the past seven years, CitC has grown into the top in-season girls’ basketball in the nation. And each season, it continues to better itself.

“[Event director] Tom Jenkins continues to bring in the best talent and best teams in the state,” Hiland coach and event coordinator Dave Schlabach said. “We’re excited about another really good year.”

Canton McKinley (Div. I), Hathaway Brown (Div. II) and Columbus Harvest Prep (Div. IV) each return off championship seasons and will each star in blockbuster games at this year’s CitC. McKinley, coming off a huge CitC VII win over Columbus Africentric,
faces Columbus Brookhaven in coach Reggie Lee’s final CitC appearance on Saturday at 3:15 p.m. Harvest Prep, which beat Hiland for the Div. IV title a year ago, faces Warren Howland Sunday at 1:45 p.m., while Hathaway Brown plays twice; Saturday at 5:15 p.m. against up-and-coming Lakota East and Sunday at 6:45 p.m. versus Fairborn.

While the event is jam-packed with epic games, perhaps the creme de la creme is Africentric vs. Hiland on Saturday at 8:30 p.m.. The Nubians are led by Ohio State recruit Raven Ferguson, University of Akron signee Brittany Thomas and OGBR Top 100 senior Chelsea Chambers. Hiland, on the other hand, is paced by junior McKenzie Miller, a nationally ranked small forward, and freshmen Regina Hochstetler.

The Nubians and Lady Hawks have extensive history in the tournaments, dating back to before Africentric jumped up to Div. III last season. In 2009, Africentric beat Hiland to win the Div. IV title.

“[Hiland assistant Dave Borter] saw them play and said they’re as good or better than any Africentric team we’ve ever played in the past,” Schlabach said. “They’re so quick and will pressure us every which way. It’s going to be a phenomenal test. They’re, by far, the best team on our schedule.”

Hiland finishes CitC off with Walsh Jesuit Monday at 8:30 p.m.

“The biggest problem for us with [Walsh] is their size. They’re huge,” Schlabach said. “They have a tremendous schedule, and it’s another great opportunity for us.

“One team (Africentric) will be in-your-face pressure and the other will be ‘beat you up with their size,’” the Hiland coach added.

West Holmes, predicted to grab a high ranking in the first AP girls basketball poll in Div. II, also plays Monday, squaring-off against
Cincinnati Indian Hill at 1:30 p.m.

While 29 of the 31 teams are peppered throughout Ohio, Myrtle Beach, S.C. and duPont Manual, Ky., represent the event’s two out-of-state teams.

Both have big challenges ahead of them. Myrtle Beach plays nationally-ranked Toledo Start Saturday at 5 p.m. and Div. I power Twinsburg on Sunday at 8:45 p.m. duPont Manual gets Twinsburg Saturday at 6:45 p.m. and then matches up against Start on Sunday at 7 p.m.

A year ago, CitC VII had a total attendance of 29,740, with about 1,487 fans at each game. Seven of the 20 games were sell-outs where folding chairs had to be brought in to accommodate the overflow at the 1800-seat Reese Center.

Around 3,200 servings of chicken & noodle were sold, and 1,000 fry pies were dished out.

The CitC has a tremendous impact on Holmes County. Schlabach said it’s nice giving back to a community that supports his team year-round.

“We have over 200 volunteers again. We have over 80 sponsors,” said Schlabach, owner of Homespun Treasures and Amish Country Peddler. “Our community does so much for the schools throughout the year, it’s nice to bring any economic impact to our community in the middle of January. We’re happy to be able to do that for our local businesses.”

Schlabach credited Jenkins and Hiland’s coaching staff as the reason for CitC’s overwhelming success.

“We all fill our own roles and do a really good job,” he said. “I handle the sponsors and volunteers. Rob Moser handles the website and the technology. Tom handles all the high school teams and college coaches.  And Borter does a lot of behind-the-scenes type stuff.”

But, really, CitC has been so successful because of the match-ups it provides the teams.

“Ultimately, we’ve created a situation where the best teams in the state want to be here because they’re going to get a great game –
regardless of division,” Schlabach said.

“… We’re trying to create the best event in the country… that was the goal from the beginning,” he continued. “So when colleges sit down and do their schedule for the year, we want to make sure the first thing they’re writing on their schedule is Classic in the Country.”

For a complete schedule and exclusive Classic in the Country content, visit classicinthecountry.org.