By JOHN HOWLEY
OGBR Staff Writer

For the past four years in January, the tiny town of Berlin has welcomed in some of the most talented basketball players the state of Ohio has to offer.

This year will be no different as 29 teams take part in Classic in the Country V.

One group of young ladies has been making Berlin home for the weekend since the Classic started and have come to be part of the extended family.

They are the Firebirds from Lakota West and for many in this fabulous group of seniors, they’ll be playing in their fifth Classic as they took part in a “breakfast special” as eighth-graders.

From that first meeting against the local eighth-grade Hawks, the people of Berlin have had a special place in their hearts for the Firebirds.

And the girls feel the same way about Berlin.

“I love going to Berlin actually. That’s the best time for me to go and do something like that. I really don’t think of it as a small community — I think of it as New York for me,” Quinessa Johnson said. “I love going there and experiencing something new. Since the girls all like going there, too, it’s never boring for us. I love going there every single time.”

“It’s real quiet and not like Cincinnati at all. We like going up there — calming I guess you would say,” Allison Whitenack said.

“It’s fun because it’s different. It’s kind of cool because here not everybody knows everybody. I like going to Berlin and the food is good up there,” Stacie Lee said. “The games are very competitive and they always plays their hearts out. At our school down here not everybody does everything because we have too many kids, but up there they live for that.”

That game in eighth grade really gave these girls from Cincinnati suburb of West Chester a feel for what basketball means in Berlin.

“In eighth grade, the whole town was there and we were playing their school. It was big for us. That was probably one of the biggest crowds we ever had,” Allison Whitenack said.

“It was something since we had never been there before. There were a lot of college coaches there actually and a big crowd waiting there to get through the door,” Amber Gray said. “We weren’t expecting that.”

“I was scared — I’m not even going to lie about that,” Johnson said. “I was terrified my first time going up there. Once you go there and experience it, you realize it’s not that bad, it’s like any other game. I think that going there helped me out as a player.”

Through the years, the Firebirds have adjusted to the differences they find when leaving hustle of the Cincinnati area and head to the slower pace of Holmes County.

“Some of the girls kind of die up there because we’re all about cell phones and some parts of Berlin you don’t get any service,” Stephanie Whitenack said. “But it’s really cool because you get to see a different community than Cincinnati because Cincinnati is all about technology. So it’s a completely different experience.

“We’re sitting there with our iPods and cell phones and look out the window and there’s people going by in carriages.”

“It’s like a culture shock but it’s really nice how everything is calm,” Katie Rhoads said.

“When you go up to Berlin, it’s like, ‘Oh there’s a horse.’ I really like it. It’s really quiet and it seems like everyone knows everything about each other,” Johnson said. “It seems like their crowd really supports what they do. I think it’s a huge experience for me as well.”

“It’s a lot of fun because it’s a lot different from here. It’s a good experience,” Caitlin Dombart said.

“I remember on the bus when we saw a horse and buggy and everyone was like, ‘Oh, look at that,'” Allison Whitenack said.

Part of that different experience comes at meal time as the drive-thru’s in Berlin are few and far between.

“The food is definitely different from here. There’s some things that are good and there are some things where you’re like ‘What is that?’ But you never know until you try it,” Johnson said.

“The girls always look forward to going to Berlin. It’s an awesome experience for the girls and continues to be something they look forward to so it hasn’t gotten old to them,” coach Andy Fishman said. “We’re always treated with great hospitality and the basketball environment is just spectacular, the whole community supports it.

“Maybe because we’ve been there so often, and the community is familiar with us and we’ve done some things in the community to try and reach out to them, perhaps if the local folks want to come down and watch and we’re not playing the Hawks, I think we’d be their choice.”

“The community loves us. Saying ‘Hi’ and coming to all of our game like we are Hiland. We like it up there and they like it when we come up there,” Gray said. “Uncle Tom (Jenkins), I call him Uncle Tom because we’re so close, he runs a great event and we’re excited to go up there for our last season and hopefully come out on top.”

As much as they enjoy spending the weekend together as a team, the fact they are there for basketball isn’t lost on the Firebirds.

“The basketball up there is just like a new level of competition and it’s really great to go up there and see where you measure up against everybody else,” Rhoads said. “I think it’s awesome that basketball is a main focus and they can draw such big crowds there.”

Lakota West has put up a 5-3 record during the first four years of the Classic, with this group of seniors at 4-2.

“We played all different types of teams — we played quick teams, we played the ones with four 6-3 girls … the competition doesn’t get boring. The competition gets better every year,” Allison Whitenack said. “Every year we go up there and prepare well for it and every year we do pretty well. We know the environment and what’s going on and we know the competition is going to get tougher.”

“The good thing for us is we’ve been going since we were in the eighth grade and each year we’ve had a couple of wins and a couple of losses. You always learn something new every time you go up there,” Gray said. “Going up there and beating a good team and losing to a good team you learn a lot of different things.”

This senior group of Firebirds would like to continue the success and go out with a pair of wins. It won’t be easy though as they take on Regina Saturday at 3:15 and come back with Toledo Central Catholic at 5:15 Sunday.

“We wish we would have won those tough games. Up there we had some tough losses but we learned from them,” Stephanie Whitenack said. “We’re definitely looking forward to this year. Since it’s our last time we’re going to make it the best we can and hopefully win our games.”

“I think it’s sad because it’s the last time we’ll all be together like that but it’s exciting because we’ve got some big games up there and we’ll just try to go out with two wins in our last time,” Rhoads said.

“Our team is always very competitive so our team loves playing against those other teams. Every team there is good,” Dombart said.

“Last year we had two wins and they were really hard wins,” Johnson said of beating host Hiland and Boardman. “The year before we lost to Mount de Chantal, they had these huge girls. The competition is definitely what we’re looking for. Each time we go there its for a good reason. It’s helped us out a lot.”

For the Firebirds, a lot is expected of them this year on the basketball court, and it’s the way they handle themselves on and off the court that has endeared the team to the folks of Berlin.

“The most important thing is that we have to be good students and good people first and they kind of walk the walk with that,” Fishman said. “That’s one of the things we’re proud of — it’s not just about the basketball, it’s about the whole package.

“It’s a great road trip for us. We love going there and being in the town and all the town has to offer.”

Editor’s note: Senior Emma Zieverink was taking the SAT when interviews for this story were done.