By JOE SCALZO
The Vindicator Sports Writer
If you wind down Ohio route 62 just out of Navarre, past the cow crossing, the three or four horse-and-buggies and the sign that says, “Visit McDonald’s! Sugarcreek’s newest restaurant,” you’ll come to the little town of Berlin, in Holmes County, deep in the heart of the world’s largest Amish community.
It’s Perry Reese Jr.’s town.
From 1984-2000 Reese a black coach in a county that was 100 percent white, created a boys basketball dynasty at Hiland High School, compiling a 304-85 record over 17 years, including a state championship and five final four appearances.
He died of cancer on November 22, 2000 at age 48. Shortly after, Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith — arguably the best sportswriter on the planet — wrote a 13-page story about Reese. Shortly after that, Tom Jenkins (who oversees the Ohio Girls Basketball Report) created the “Classic in the Country Challenge,” an event designed to honor the memories of Reese and Martin Luther King Jr.
Thirty-three teams compete in 20 games over a three-day weekend. The atmosphere rivals that of a regional tournament and the event is run as well as the state tournament. Maybe better.
Three area teams have played in event
Only three area teams have played in the event; Boardman, Ursuline and Canfield. Event officials try to bring in the best of the best from around Ohio, with a few out-of-state teams competing.
More than 100 college coaches attend, including coaches from LSU, Seton Hall, Pitt, Boston College and Buffalo, which signed Rayen senior Tieara Jones. (When I spoke with a Buffalo coach, she said, “Tell Tieara we said hello. And we need her right now.”)
About 250 people from the community volunteer their time. The event takes place in a new $2 million gymnasium, It took two months to raise the money. Rumor has it, Hiland will soon add a $1 million expansion. When asked how long it would take to raise the money, a Hiland coach said, “About a week.”
The event draws pretty much every elite girls basketball team in the state. On Sunday, Boardman drew the best one.
In 2004, the Spartans’ first appearance at the event, they defeated West Chester Lakota West, 58-34. This time, Lakota West brought arguably the best team in the state — and arguably the best junior in the state in 6-foot-1 power forward Amber Gray — in a rematch with the Spartans.
Before the game, when asked if he picked his opponent, Boardman coach Ron Moschella laughed and said, “No way.”
Spartans bow to Lakota West
But the Spartans gave Lakota West all it could handle before losing 52-46 in a game that was beneficial for both teams.
“We enjoy coming down,” said Moschella, whose team was making its third appearance in the Classic’s four-year history. “It’s a good experience for the kids and it’s a chance to see some really good basketball.”
The event puts the players first, although the media aren’t far behind. The upstairs media room has free drinks and desserts and the free dinner consisted of roast beef, chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, rolls and dessert.
Oh and there’s a projection screen showing Sunday’s NFL playoff games with leather couches. And when the time comes to get out of the chairs, you can read the extensive scouting report on each team (there’s a 100-page media folder, combined with another 100-page media guide), then read the stat sheets that are printed out after every contest.
In short, it’s girls basketball heaven. For everyone.
Teams are taken care of.
Reporters are taken care of.
Coaches are taken care of.
Players are taken care of.
Fans are taken care of.
“The community really backs it,” said Moschella, who won his 500th career game earlier in the week.
“The hotels are wonderful and they pay a lot of your expenses. It’s a great environment.
“You just pray to God your kids play well.”
And you thank God for men like King and Reese, whose example impacted the world for the better. For all the attention on the games, the memory of those two men comes first.
“It’s an honor to be here, remembering someone who was a great coach until he passed away,” Moschella said. “And I think it’s great that the community backs this so much.”