By ANDREW VOGEL
Daily Record Sports Writer
The success of the girls basketball programs at Hiland, Orrville and West Holmes make deep postseason runs an expectation every year.
While mid-January typically marks the season’s halfway point, this weekend’s Classic in the Country Challenge will give the three local squads the March-like atmosphere they have come to anticipate.
Hiland, the host of the ninth annual event, will play on Saturday and Monday, as will neighboring West Holmes. Orrville will play one game on Monday.
This year’s event, held at Hiland’s Perry Reese Community Center, features 29 teams in 20 games from Saturday, Jan. 14 through Monday, Jan. 16. Eighteen of those teams are ranked in the AP Top Ten poll, with three other schools receiving votes.
“It’s a great facility and so well-organized,” said Orrville coach Mark Alberts Sr, whose Red Riders knocked off Fort Laramie 59-52 in last year’s event. “Their staff does a great job making the girls feel welcome. It’s a great showcase for girls basketball.”
Hiland coach Dave Schlabach, who created the event along with Tom Jenkins, said the CitC offers his team the best competition it will face all year.
“We try to take our non-league schedule and play teams that are even better than we’ll see in the tournament,” said Schlabach.
That is certainly the case again this year. In Saturday’s finale at 8 p.m., the Hawks (8-1) will take on Div. I Cincinnati Withrow (8-1) and in Monday’s wrap-up they will host North Canton Hoover (8-2), another Div. I school that is receiving votes in the AP poll.
Withrow is led by second-year coach Dante Harlan. Before joining the Tigers, Harlan spent nine seasons, four as an assistant and five as the head coach, at Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame, where he went to the Final Four six times and won five state titles. At his disposal, Harlan has 6-foot-2 center Montrail Roberts, along with guards Xasha Cohen, Brie Starkey, Brittnay Dozier and 5-10 forward Lauren Drew.
“Withrow is an athletic team,” said Schlabach. “It’s one of those games where we’ll have to handle pressure for 32 minutes.”
Hoover, the Hawks’ other opponent, has plenty of athletes as well, include 6-0 forward Kaylee Stroemple, 5-10 forward Erika Warren, 5-10 guard Kelsey Peare and 5-8 guard Kelsey Lensman. The Vikings have played in the classic every season since the inaugural event in 2002.
“Hoover is the same thing,” said Schlabach. “They are a Div. I school that is one of the best in the Northeast. Our kids are going to have to play well to stay in those games.”
The Hawks, of course, have had plenty of their own success, winning four state championships since 2000. The Hawks are ranked No. 3 in Div. IV and their only loss came earlier this month at home to Wooster. McKenzie Miller leads the team in scoring (13.0 points per game) and rebounding (5.6 boards per game). Meagan Hall (8.4 ppg), Regina Hochstetler (7.9 ppg), Jasmine Goings (7.7ppg) and Kendra Schlabach (7.0 ppg) have also pitched in.
Schlabach said that his team hasn’t yet reached its lofty potential and is still waiting for it to turn the corner.
“I feel like we’re ready to break out,” he said. “These are great opponents to see what we’re made of.
“McKenzie Miller is back to the form we expected. We thought she’d be one of the best Div. IV players in the state. In the first five games she wasn’t playing to that level, but now she is,” Schlabach added.
West Holmes (8-1) is currently receiving votes in the AP Div. II poll. This will be the Knights’ ninth appearance in the CitC, but they have struggled to find success in Berlin with an all-time record of 1-7. Last year, the Knights lost to Indian Hill 53-35. This weekend, the Knights will face Columbus Northland (8-1) on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. and Shaker Heights Hathaway Brown (7-3) on Monday at 6:45 p.m.
West Holmes will have its hands full. Northland is ranked No. 10 in Div. I and Hathaway Brown is the three-time defending state champion from Div. II. Northland is led by Alexis Peterson, while Vanessa Smith and Nia Marshall, a pair of 6-0 forwards, highlight Hathaway Brown’s lineup. The Blazers have four returning starters from last year’s title team.
“Northland is scoring a lot of points and gets up and down the floor and Hathaway Brown has size inside,” said West Holmes coach Lisa Patterson. “They’re two different teams but are very athletic.”
Laina Snyder, one of the best post players in the area, is the top performer for the Knights, averaging team-highs in points (17.9) and rebounds (12.2).
“We can put her inside or outside and put her at different positions on the floor,” said Patterson, of her sophomore. “She’s the go-to player when we need a basket, but we also have a strong supporting cast.”
Paiten Strother (7.9 ppg), has been the Knights’ No. 2 option so far, with Rachelle Morrison (6.4 ppg) and Emily Molnar (5.1 ppg) also contributing.
Orrville (8-2) plays Austintown Fitch (5-3) in the other local matchup of the CitC on Monday at 10 a.m. Talented sophomore Megan Sefcik, a 5-9 wing, will create the most match up problems for the Riders.
Hannah Plybon, The Daily Record Player of the Year last spring, is the again the top scorer (19.4 ppg) for the Riders, as well as tallying a team-leading 9.8 boards per night. Maggie Davault is the second-leading scorer (12.4 ppg) and the weapon-laden Riders have also gotten a lift from Brianne Adcock (9.3 ppg) and Abby Reusser (7.4 ppg). However, it is the emergence of post players Shamaya Sims (6.7 rpg) and Sierra McCrary (5.8 rpg) that has impressed Alberts.
“Shamaya is only a sophomore,” he said. “She’s handled herself well and we’ve seen lots of improvement from her.”
The Riders’ only two setbacks have been close losses to Ohio Cardinal Conference opponents West Holmes and Wooster. Alberts said the CitC marks an important test at the season’s halfway mark.
“You don’t want to stay stationary,” he said. “You want to improve. Teams, especially at the midpoint, don’t stay the same — they either get better or get worse. This game is a lot like the atmosphere we’ll see at the district and sectional rounds.”
Schlabach said that is the goal of this weekend.
“It’s a lot like the regional final with high-caliber competition,” he said. “You can’t duplicate that experience anywhere else but at the CitC. The place is packed and it’s a fun atmosphere for our kids.”
The calendar may say January, but this weekend could provide a measuring stick of how the locals fare in March.