By DAVE MAST

Five years ago, Hiland girls’ basketball coach Dave Schlabach and Ohio Girls Basketball Report author Tom Jenkins created Classic in the Country Challenge to generate some interest in traveling to Holmes County during the off-season.

By bringing in more than two dozen of the very best girls basketball team in the state of Ohio to square off during one exciting weekend, they thought they could inject some excitement into the county.

Fast-forward five years, millions of dollars of revenue and countless exciting basketball games later, and you’ve got what is widely considered on a national basis one of the top high school showcases of any sport, anywhere.

While it was a small group which created the Classic, it has quickly grown into a community event, which positively affects businesses in Holmes County and even beyond.

Because of that, the community has jumped at the chance to take part.

“This has definitely become a community event,” said Schlabach. “As long as the community continues to support us, we will continue to make this happen. They have done a tremendous job volunteering and becoming a major part of the Classic. This has given us a chance to be able to give something back to the community.”

Among the 20 games on the docket, both Jenkins and Schlabach agree that the Saturday schedule is undeniably the greatest day of basketball the Classic has seen to date.

And while the Classic may take place Jan. 19-21, this showcase event is no three-day wonder. It has become nearly a year-round process, which requires much from its creators.

“People will probably never know the extent of everything that goes on behind the scenes,” said Jenkins, who has moved to Holmes County so he can give the event the time it deserves.

Jenkins said that a total of 8,279 pieces of mail are sent out throughout the year to promote the Classic. More than 1,200 head college coaches from across the nation receive promotional pieces and invitations to the event.

The participating schools all receive boxes of promotional booklets, aimed at letting interested travelers know where they can stay, dine and relax in Holmes County when they aren’t busy watching games. Meanwhile, Jenkins and Schlabach are hard at it all year, trying to wrangle up sponsors for the event — something they have had great success with to date.

Even scheduling of the games takes great time on Jenkins part, since he has to create the schedule so far in advance.

“I try to set the field for the next Classic between August and October,” said Jenkins. “There are three criteria for a team to qualify for the Classic, and they have to meet at least two of them.

“They have to be able to bring a fan base of at least 250 people, they must have a big-time Division I prospect, or multiple Division I prospects, and they have to be realistically projected in the AP Top 10.”

Those qualifications assure a solid core of teams that will present fans with a sensational weekend of basketball.

But there is far more to it than just Jenkins, Schlabach and his crew.

“This doesn’t just happen because of us,” said Jenkins. “It’s the people of the community who dedicate their time to making it happen, too.”

Jenkins said that it takes the efforts of volunteers who head up the food committee responsible for feeding team members, coaching staffs, the high school students who run the half-time and between-game entertainment, the concession stand committee, and the volunteers who become team hosts, official hosts, sell programs and tickets, or perform any one of the host jobs which go unnoticed for the most part.

It all leads to one whale of a weekend of basketball, which has people talking across the state, and college coaches licking their chops, awaiting a chance to find Ohio’s most talented players on display at one sitting.

“In my 27 years as a head coach in girls basketball, 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, who will square off with Hiland on Saturday, Jan. 19.

“I absolutely love coming here. It’s an electric atmosphere that is about more than just basketball.”

Lee sums up what not only the coaches and players feel, but also 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.