By KEVIN LYNCH Staff Writer
BERLIN — The Kaufman Realty and Auctions Classic in the Country Challenge Powered by Under Armour celebrates its 13th year of bringing the best girls basketball in the state of Ohio and beyond into one venue, as Hiland hosts the event that features 20 games over three days, starting this Saturday and running through Monday, Martin Luther King Day, at the Perry Reese Jr. Community Center.
The event was the brainchild of Ohio Girls Basketball Report publisher Tom Jenkins, Hiland coach Dave Schlabach, GlenOak coach Paul Wackerly (when he was at North Canton Hoover) and Wadsworth coach Andy Booth. Booth and Schlabach were backcourt mates during their playing days at Malone.
“The expectations in the basketball community around the state are very high,” Schlabach said. “Everyone expects it to be a great event. The best players in the state are here. Especially when you look at that sophomore class. We’re expecting one of the largest college coaching crowds ever on Monday (Jan. 18), because of all those great sophomores. That should create a lot of attention by our college followers. Everyone expects great games.”
Jenkins noted that 14 of the top rated 15 players from the class of 2018 will be playing at this year’s Classic, 18 of the top 20, and 22 of the top 25 sophomores in the state, along with some nationally ranked players. Solon’s 6-foot-3 sophomore center Valencia Myers is the No. 2 ranked post player in the country by Dan Olson’s Collegiate Girls Basketball Report (CGBR) and was a member of the 16-U USA Basketball team that played over the summer in Mexico. Other Top 10 players from the class of 2018 include USA teammate Bexley Wallace of Pickerington Central (a 6-2 forward ranked No. 5 in the country by CGBR), Jackson point guard Taylor Mikesell (No. 6), Shai McGruder of Wayne (another 6-2 forward, No. 9) and Naz Hillmon of Gilmour Academy (No. 10 post).
“The class of 2018 will be the second best class we’ve had in the 18 years I’ve been doing this,” Jenkins said. “The 2003 class, from which we had 103 Div. I signees (the most of any state in America) had five McDonald’s All-Americans. There should be 90-plus D-I signees out of the class of ’18, and possibly four McDonald’s All-Americans from that class.”
The event continues to be one of the highlights of the year for many teams invited to participate, not only for the high-quality of competition the teams face during the weekend, but because of the celebration of diversity, bringing teams from the inner city to compete against country bumpkins, and giving the kids an opportunity to experience different lifestyles and celebrate the memory of former Hiland coach Perry Reese Jr, and Martin Luther King Jr.
More than half of the 2016 field of 30 teams weren’t here last year (16 teams), including 13 teams making their debut at the Classic this year. After this year’s event is completed, of the 789 schools in Ohio that have varsity girls basketball, 215 of those teams will have participated in the Classic in the Country Challenge. That is 27 percent of all the schools in Ohio that have come to play in Berlin, Ohio.
“We try to turn over one-third to half of the field of teams every year,” Jenkins said. “We try to provide opportunities for everybody.”
Among the teams competing this year are three of the top four teams in Div. I, including reigning champions Lakota West, Div. II champion Archbishop Alter and Div. IV champion Fort Loramie.