By ZACH BOLINGER
Daily Record Sports Writer

BERLIN — For the fourth straight Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, the small town of Berlin is doing it up big.

Hiland High School, Ohio Girls Basketball Report founder/director Tom Jenkins and close to 250 volunteers are set to again put on Classic in the Country IV. The Jan 13-15 girls basketball showcase, which will feature 33 teams and 20 games, has again been named one of the top three high school events in America by USA Today.

It is considered the premier high school event in Ohio.

“Anybody out there who doesn’t know our community, had to have said ‘How are they going to put present this thing in the little town of Berlin?'” Hiland girls basketball coach Dave Schlabach said. “It’s succeeded because the community has done a great job encompassing the event, embracing it and taking it upon themselves to make it great. We have plenty of manpower to keep it going.”

Intended to honor Dr. King and beloved Hiland boys basketball coach Perry Reese Jr. — black men who helped shape racial harmony on a national and local level — the event will be held at Hiland’s 1,800-seat Perry Reese Community Center. It will become a hotbed for hoops, with seven games Saturday, six Sunday and seven more Monday, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Perry Reese Jr. Memorial Scholarship fund.

Reese, a Catholic black man living in the largely Amish/Mennonite population of eastern Holmes County, died of brain cancer in November, 2000.

“The Classic in the Country provides the most warm and congenial atmosphere that you could have at a multi-cultural event,” Columbus Eastmoor athletic director Anthony Brown recently said during a speech to the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s Diversity Council. “It is the welcome center for parents, student athletes, administrators, fans and college coaches.

“You come away from the Classic in the Country with a great feeling about our society. You come away from the Classic in the Country with a feeling of oneness as a people. It is truly what scholastic athletics should represent.”

Last year, more than 19,000 people experienced the diversity and community hospitality of the CitC. It was over a 20-percent increase from the preceding year, with Holmes County Chamber of Commerce director Shasta Mast determining there was a $1.4 million economic impact on the business community. Moreover, more than 1,500 folks who attended CitC III returned to Berlin in the spring, summer or fall.

Exactly 122 college coaches attended in 2006. More are expected this season.

“Every year it just seems there’s one avenue where there’s a tremendous growth spurt,” said Jenkins, the CitC director who grew up in a little tobacco town in North Carolina and became enamored with the Civil Rights movement at age 13. “Last year, the total attendance and number of college coaches jumped tremendously. This year it looks like we can expect 150 college coaches or so, and the media involvement looks to be greater.”

At least 70 of the top 100 players in Ohio — grades nine through 12 — will display their talents. Three of the four 2005-06 Ohio state champions (Cincinnati Mt. Notre Dame, Div. I; Warsaw River View, Div. II; Hiland, Div. IV) are in the field. All four of last year’s state champions participated in CitC III.

Locally, Hiland will play West Chester Lakota West in an 8:30 p.m. nightcap Saturday. And the final two games of the weekend will be West Holmes-Shaker Heights Hathaway Brown (6:45 p.m.) and Hiland-Wadsworth (8:30 p.m.) Monday.

“My wife (Judge Emmanuella Groves) and I were extremely concerned with our daughter’s team playing on Monday at The Classic in the Country last year,” said Cleveland attorney Greg Groves, whose daughter Angela plays for Hathaway Brown and is a top-30 prospect nationally. “Every year we focus on this particular Monday as a day of remembrance in honor of Dr. King. We felt on the way down here that we were betraying our commitment … but as soon as we walked through the gates that feeling disappeared.

“We knew we were somewhere special on this special weekend. The focus was on remembrance. The basketball was just the vehicle.”

If that’s the case, the Classic in the Country remains the Rolls Royce of Ohio high school hoops.