Second annual Classic in the Country set to tip off Saturday at Perry Reese Jr. Community Center

By ZACH BOLINGER
Daily Record Sports Writer

Tucked away in the heart of Berlin’s Amish country is an 1,800-seat gymnasium — one of a kind as far as high school facilities are concerned.

A vast majority of the time, a quiet breeze and peaceful pace surround this Perry Reese Jr. Community Center located behind Hiland High School.

That will all change Jan. 15-17, as after a more-than-successful inaugural Classic in the Country, “Ohio Girls Basketball Report” and Hiland High have joined together for the Classic in the Country II. Over the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, 31 top-notch girls basketball teams from across the state will invade Berlin to provide a hustle-bustle, energetic atmosphere on court and off. The “Hawks Nest” will be home to 20 marquee games featuring over 75 Division I college prospects.

“We’re expecting the number of college coaches to go from around 80 last year to 120 this year, and I just talked to a few of the hotels in the area and they said they have substantially more rooms reserved,” said Hiland coach Dave Schlabach.

“We’re not surprised, because we believe that the lineup — in terms of quality team and players — is better than last year. It also looks like the weather is going to cooperate, so everything looks like it is going to come together nicely.”

Seven teams that advanced to the 2004 State Girls Basketball Tournament will be on hand, including three of last year’s four state champions. Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame was the Division I winner, Beloit West Branch took home Division II top honors and Youngstown Ursuline earned the Division III crown.

It’s much more than that, though, as three of last year’s Final four teams in Division. I are scheduled to compete, while two state qualifiers in each of Division II, III and IV are also penciled in. It will indeed be girls basketball at its finest, as the Classic in the Country is “one of the top three high school events in America” according to the NCAA College Coach Consensus and USA Today.

“One of the biggest things I see with the Classic in the Country is that it has moved on from being a sporting event to a production — it’s like producing a festival,” said Tom Jenkins, the Classic in the Country II Event Director and organizer of the “Ohio Girls Basketball Report.”

“As good as it was last year, this year’s field will be even better with the number of nationally ranked players and number of nationally and state-ranked teams.”

Just one of the teams will have to cross state lines in order to attend, as nationally renowned Mt. de Chantal of Wheeling, WV, will play twice at the Classic II. The Lions, an all-girls school of just 200 students, has key contributors from Austria, Africa, England, Romania, Serbia and the Czech Republic.

And how fitting is it that they are coming to Berlin, as part of the event is to honor the memory of legendary Hiland boys basketball coach Perry Reese Jr. — the only African American man in eastern Holmes County at one time, eventually transforming how the area looked at race.

“We are somewhat familiar with playing in prominent tournaments at nice venues, but I don’t know if there are any more professionally ran than the Classic in the Country,” said Mt. de Chantal coach John Rowan. “From the moment we walk through the doors the people at Hiland show our kids, coaching staff and fans the utmost respect. It makes you feel like a celebrity.

“Unfortunately, we are not always met with such kindness since we’re not an ‘all-American team,’ so to speak,” Rowan added. “Since we do have players from all over the globe, we do get hostilities yelled in our direction. … At the Classic in the Country we get judged by how we play, not where we come from.”

Tiny Jackson Center (Shelby County, 150 total students) is delighted for that, as eighth-year coach Gregg Gooding is tickled pink that his Tigers are invited.

“I’ve been telling everyone that we’re just a little hillbilly school that is excited about the opportunity we have,” said Gooding, whose Division IV team will play Division II River View on Monday. “We may actually be a smaller school than Hiland — this year’s graduating class has somewhere between 35 and 40 — so this is the big time for us.

“We’ve chartered a bus for the team, and for all their parents to come along as well,” Gooding added. “We’re going to try our darndest to win, but we’re going to try and make it an experience the girls and their families will never forget.”

Judging from coach, player, media and college scout responses to last year’s first go-round, and also the synopsis and projections for this year’s event, making memories shouldn’t be too tough.

“It’s a true classic, because you get a lot of good teams in a lot of good divisions … and all the kids are not only treated with the utmost hospitality, but they are exposed to scouts from every college level,” said Cincinnati Mt. Notre Dame coach Dr. Scott Rogers.

Mt Notre Dame is ranked 25th in the latest USA Today Super 25 girls basketball rankings, while fellow Classic competitor Dayton Chaminade-Julienne is 10th in the national poll.

“The bottom line for us is putting together the toughest non-conference schedule we can, and the Classic in the Country gets us ready for important games a month from now,” said Rogers, whose team will play South-Euclid Regina on Saturday and Barberton on Sunday. “Most teams are willing to play anybody on their home court, but what you get from your kids in a big game away from home — especially at this point in the season — really tells you an awful lot about the standing of your program.”

In all, 21 of the 33 teams that competed in the first Classic in the Country went on to play in their division’s respective regional final.

Locally, Wooster will play West Chester Lakota West at 11:45 am Saturday and West Holmes will take on Garfield Heights Trinity at 5 pm Monday. The host Hawks, expected to make a serious push at the Division IV state championship, have 8:30 pm matchups set with Youngstown Ursuline (Saturday) and Akron Hoban (Monday).

Whether it be early morning or late night, some “classic” high school girls hoops are in store.

“Playing a game at 10 am should be interesting, and my girls weren’t too thrilled about that when I told them, but that is the only thing they aren’t excited about,” joked Jonathan Alder coach Terra McDaniels, whose Division III team will open Monday’s slate against fellow Division III Hathaway Brown. “From what I’ve heard, this tournament is nationally recognized. It’s something special to get praise from some of the people I’ve been talking to.”