By KEVIN LYNCH
Daily Record Sports Writer

BERLIN — The eighth Classic in the Country Challenge promises to be as exciting as the seven previous events featuring a bevy of the best girls basketball Ohio has to offer as 31 teams square off in 20 games over a three-day period, beginning Saturday, Jan. 15 through Monday, Jan. 17

Three of the four reigning state champions, (D-I Canton McKinley, D-II Hathaway Brown and D-IV Harvest Prep) are among the teams playing at this year’s event, along with several of the top-rated teams and projected powerhouses from this year. All four D-IV final 4 teams from last year will be competing at this year’s classic (Harvest Prep, Hiland, Minster and Fort Loramie). Other state powers include Twinsburg, Cincinnati Princeton, Toledo Start, Africentric, as well as local favorites West Holmes and Orrville.

There are also a pair of out-of-state teams making their way to Berlin this year, including defending South Carolina state champion Myrtle Beach High School, coached by former Triway player and assistant coach Brian Kiper, and DuPont Manual of Kentucky.

The following is a brief preview capsule of the 20-game schedule with players to watch from the participants, based on conversations with coaches and information provided by Classic in the Country Challenge (CITC) coordinator Tom Jenkins, who also publishes the Ohio Girls Basketball Report.

(The most recent team records were updated from Maxpreps as of 1-6-2011)

Day 1

Game 1

Saturday Jan. 15, 10 a.m.

Minerva Lions (3-2) vs. Minster Wildcats (7-0)

The tipoff game between the Lions and Wildcats features one of the projedted top teams in D-II (Minerva) against a Final 4 team from last year in D-IV.

The Lions are led by 6-4 senior post player Chelsea Butler, who is headed Marquette next year. Sharpshooter Taylor Maurer gives Minerva a potent threat from the perimeter, while Shawnee State- bound Kasidy Hardgrove runs the offense for veteran coach Bruce Wright.

Tara Clune is a 6-2 junior post player who will be charged with containing Butler, while Erica Fullencamp and Delanie Woolf provide solid perimeter play for the Wildcats. Woolf is heading to Ashland University next season.

Game 2

Saturday Jan. 15, 11:45 a.m.

Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame Cougars (3-6) vs. North Canton Hoover Vikings (4-1)

A pair of traditional D-I powers are both teams in transition this year. The Cougars, who had their four-year run as state champions stopped a year ago, are under new management this year, as are the Vikings.

Kelly Main guides the Cougars, who are led by University of Iowa-bound guard Kathryn Reynolds. Three other senior letterwinners, Avery Larkin, Cassie Lastivka and Gabby West return for Mount Notre Dame.

Former Fairless coach Tim Vick takes over the Vikings this year, replacing one of the founders of the Classic in the Country, Paul Wackerly, who is now coaching Massillon Perry boys. Hoover has 10 returning letterwinners back from last year’s team. Senior point guard Hannah Romano runs the show for the Vikings with Erin Culver and newcomer Laura Wheeler providing size inside.

Game 3

Saturday Jan. 15, 1:30 p.m.

Lakota West Firebirds (5-3) vs. Northland Vikings (5-0)

A Classic in the Country regular, making their seventh appearance at the event, Andy Fishman’s Firebirds will be taking on a newcomer Columbus Northland. Junior post player, 6-3 Olivia Wrencher leads a host of talented players for the deep Firebirds. University of Massachusetts-bound forward Ronnie Grandison and Mea Williams are returning letterwinners for the Firebirds. “Our annual trip to Berlin has become a favorite weekend for our players, coaches and fans,” said Fishman.

The Vikings were 17-4 last season and return eight players from that squad, led by a pair of nationally ranked players. Point guard Alexis Peterson is a top 5 sophomore player in the country according to College Girls Basketball Report (CGBR), and 6-foot senior Tatiana Chaplet is a top 100 forward.

“We are excited to be coming to the Classic in the Country Challenge this year. We believe we can compete with the best teams in the state and this will provide us with the opportunity to prove that,” said Northland coach Dean Washington.

Game 4

Saturday Jan. 15, 3:15 p.m.

Canton McKinley Bulldogs (7-0) vs. Brookhaven Bearcats (6-0)

After finally notching their first win in seven tries at last year’s CITC, veteran coach Reggie Lee’s Bearcats will have their work cut out for them this year as they take on the reigning D-I state champion Bulldogs, who have eight girls back from that squad. “We look forward to the challenge,” Lee said. That is because the Bearcats feature a quartet of top 100 nationally ranked players to compete against the ferocious Bulldogs. Senior guard Travecia Franklin (Indiana State Univ.), senior forward Marah Morris (Indiana State) and senior point guard Briana Holmes (Marist Univ.) are all committed to playing at the next level, while 6-1 senior forward Chanae Ward is another top player expected to keep the Bearcats competitive.

McKinley features junior wing Ameryst Alston, a top 12 junior player in the country, and super sophomore point guard Aaliyah Dotson, in a game that is sure to be played at break-neck speed. Seniors Laneisha Lennon and Jasmine Neal are also big contributors for the Bulldogs of coach Pam Davis.

Game 5

Saturday Jan. 15, 5:00 p.m.

Myrtle Beach Seahawks (7-3) vs. Toledo Start Spartans (5-0)

Reigning South Carolina 3A state champion Myrtle Beach was hoping to beef up its schedule this year and CITC coordinator Tom Jenkins obliged. How about a date with nationally ranked Toledo Start? “Our main reason for coming is to play against good competition halfway through our regular season. We will obviously have that,” said Seahawks coach Brian Kiper, in his third year at the helm of the Myrtle Beach squad. The Seahawks return seven of the top eight players from last year’s championship team, led by seniors Shatia Cole, Danielle Cooper, DJ Hunter, Demetria Keith, Austin Thompson and Keyaurna Wilson. Junior point guard Khadijah Sessions is ranked No. 12 in her class by CGBR and she makes things happen on the floor. “We hope to represent our school and our state well in this great weekend for girls basketball,” Kiper said.

Ohio State-bound point guard Maleeka Kynard and Kentucky-bound post, 6-4 Azia Bishop provide the one-two punch for the Spartans who went 18-5 last year after falling in the state championship game the year before that. Another senior, Jaymie Jackson and junior post CeDra Evans return as starters for coach Bobby Brown.

Game 6

Saturday Jan. 15, 6:45 p.m.

DuPont Manual Crimson (8-3) vs. Twinsburg Tigers (9-0)

Junior point guard April Wilson has already committed to Purdue, and she is the main cog in the Crimson engine for coach Stacy Pendleton. Kara Wright is another nationally ranked junior guard who helps power the Crimson offense. Juniors Mechael Guess, Leassia Wright, Lauren Bondie, and a pair of sophomores, Destony Curry and Kayla Styles are all returning letterwinners for the girls from Kentucky, who will have their hands full trying to slow down Malina Howard and Co. Howard, a 6-4 junior post, was a member of the Gold Medal winning USA 18-under team last summer. Twinsburg coach Julie Solis says Howard is competing at a whole new level this year, and the improved chemistry of the team is an additional bonus for a team that was a regional finalist in D-I last year, losing to eventual champion Canton McKinley. Senior point guard Katie Fox runs the show with sophomore guard Ashley Morrissette attracting a lot of national attention as well. Sophomore Chardell Dunnigan is a 6-2 forward who gives the Tigers depth on the post.

Game 7

Saturday Jan. 15, 8:30 p.m.

Africentric Nubians (5-2) vs. Hiland Hawks (7-1)

The Hawks and Nubians have had many memorable matchups over the years before the girls from Africentric moved up to D-III, so the rekindling of this rivalry is sure to bring out the best in both teams.

The Nubians return four letterwinners from last year’s squad that finished 18-6, led by Raven Ferguson, a top 5 guard who will be playing for Ohio State next season. Senior wing Brittany Thomas has committed to the University of Akron. Senior point guard Chelsea Chambers runs the show for eighth-year coach Will McKinney, the only coach the Nubians have ever had.

“It is very exciting coming back to the Classic in the Country but even more this year playing our old rival Berlin Hiland,” McKinney said. “I have so much respect for Dave Schlabach and his staff. They work hard, prepare their players and make the most of whatever talent they may have every year.”

This year, the Hawks are led by juniors McKenzie Miller and Meagan Hall and sophomore Kendra Schlabach. Freshmen Regina Hochstetler, Jenica Schrock and Emily Yoder are all making an impact for the Hawks and veteran coach Schlabach.

Day 2

Game 8

Sunday, Jan. 16, 12:00 noon

Toledo Central Catholic Fighting Irish (4-2) vs. Mount Notre Dame Cougars (3-6)

Sunday’s action starts off with a pair of tradition-laden programs squaring off for the first time since their meeting in the Final 4 in 2008. Both teams have new coaches running the show as longtime assistant coach Martin McGurk takes over for legendary Steve Pfahler. The Irish have four returning starters in Alexxis Knannlein, a 6-1 senior forward, and a trio of junior guards, Jamie Sobczak, Brianna Rogers and Sydney Shaffer.

Kathryn Reynolds runs the offense for first-year coach of the Cougars Kelly Main. Junior forward Jazmin Hayes is a 6-footer who provides some inside toughness for the Cougars. Another 6-foot junior, Alexa Santamaria is a player to watch.

Game 9

Sunday, Jan. 16, 1:45 p.m.

Warren Howland Tigers (8-0) vs. Harvest Prep Warriors (8-0)

A pair of newcomers to the CITC, the Tigers and Warriors are both teams expected to go far this season. Howland has four players back from last year’s 19-4 squad, led by 6-3 center Taylor Williams, ranked No. 33 in the nation among junior post players. Juniors Olivia Nicholas and Erika Nites are returning starters, along with senior Kaylee Redon. “This will be a great test for us,” said veteran Howland coach John Diehl.

The Warriors are the defending D-IV champions, bringing back five returning letterwinners from last year’s team. Senior post Shicole Watts is heading to Xavier, and wing Chelsea McKnight will play at Miami of Ohio. Point guard Aryealle Beavers has committed to Loyola-Chicago. The trio are all nationally ranked players by the CGBR.

Juniors Jarel Francis and Jaren Francis provide size and depth inside, while newcomers Sarah Crowder and Destiny Turner are expected to make an impact for the Warriors this year as well.

Game 10

Sunday, Jan. 16, 3:30 p.m.

Wadsworth Grizzlies (6-2) vs. Lakota West Firebirds (5-3)

Andy Booth’s Grizzlies will certainly be able to see how they stack up against other state powers after their weekend at the CITC. “These games against two of the premier programs from Southwest Ohio will certainly give us a chance to gauge where we stand among quality teams in the state,” Booth said. Wadsworth faces Lakota West Sunday afternoon, and the Grizzlies bring plenty of talent to the table. Senior point guard Taylor Woods and senior post Robyn Rotterschmidt are a pair of premier players. Rotterschmidt, the 6-1 post has committed to Ashland Univ.

The Firebirds feature big athletic girls who like to run. Senior forward Ronnie Grandison (5-10) and junior post Olivia Wrencher (6-3) are nationally ranked players, who along with Mea Williams, Bari Schwartz and Summer Reeves provide depth and talent for the Firebirds.

Game 11

Sunday, Jan. 16, 5:15 p.m.

Hathaway Brown Blazers (6-3) vs. Lakota East Thunderhawks (7-2)

Lakota East is making its CITC debut against two-time defending D-II state champion Hathaway Brown. The Thunderbirds feature four returning players from last year’s 14-win squad. Leading the way is junior win Alyssa Grevenkamp. Two other juniors, Whitney Wycoff and Molly Blomer, and sophomore Imani Outlaw provide offensive pop, along with 6-foot junior Tazzie Shaw, a nationally ranked player who played at Lakota West last season.

The Blazers boast six returning letterwinners from last year’s championship squad, led by senior post Molly Crosby, who is committed to Loyola-Chicago. Vanessa Smith and Nia Marshall are nationally ranked sophomores, who along with another nationally recognized player, senior post Sarah Poland, and Tanisha Lawler and Alanna Guy give 12th-year coach Paul Barlow plenty of depth and talent with which to work. The Blazers have made four straight trips to the Final 4, winning the last two and finishing runner-up the previous two trips.

“We are pleased to be back at the Classic,” Barlow said. “It is truly a weekend that our players look forward to every year.”

Game 12

Sunday, Jan. 16, 7:00 p.m.

Toledo Start Spartans (5-0) vs. DuPont Manual Crimson (8-3)

Toledo Start took down national power Potter’s House last year at Classic in the Country, and the Spartans will get a shot at another out-of-state power in Kentucky’s DuPont Manual.

“We are excited about our trip to Berlin,” said DuPont coach Stacy Pendleton. “We look to challenge our team with the best possible competition, and it is evident we will be getting the best of the best this year at the Classic in the Country.”

Four of the seven returning letterwinners for the Crimson are nationally ranked players, led by junior point guard April Wilson. Kara Wright and Leasia Wright are both ranked among the top 50 junior guards, and junior Lauren Bondie is another nationally ranked wing, rated No. 73 by CGBR.

The Spartans have some flash of their own in senior point guard Maleeka Kynard, senior forward Azia Bishop, senior wing Jaymie Jackson and junior post CeDra Evans.

“Playing a pair of nationally known powerhouse teams is an honor,” said Spartans coach Bobby Brown. “We have some unfinished business to accomplish this year, and both of these games will help us on our road to achieving our goals.”

Game 13

Sunday, Jan. 16, 8:45 p.m.

Twinsbsurg Tigers (9-0) vs. Myrtle Beach Seahawks (7-3)

Sunday night’s action caps off with a battle between one of Ohio’s top teams and South Carolina’s reigning queens of the court.

Twinsburg went 24-2 last year, falling to Canton McKinley in the regional finals. The Tigers are led by 6-4 junior post Malina Howard and another pair of nationally recognized players, junior wing LaShawna Gatewood and sophomore guard Ashley Morrissette. Seniors Katie Fox, Nicole Carman and junior Leah Fetchko are returning letterwinners for the Tigers.

Second-year Tigers coach Julie Solis is happy to challenge her team with the quality competition they will get in the Seahawks of former Triway player and assistant coach Brian Kiper.

“This is a special weekend filled with special teams, and we are proud to be a part of it,” Solis said.

The Seahawks feature seven of the top eight players back from last year’s championship squad, led by seniors Shatia Cole, Danielle Cooper, DJ Hunter, Demetria Keith, Austin Thompson and Keyaurna Wilson. Junior point guard Khadijah Sessions and sophomore Tanisha Brown are also back for the Seahawks.

Day 3

Game 14

Monday, Jan. 17, 10:00 a.m.

Orrville Red Riders (6-2) vs. Fort Loramie Redskins (4-2)

The Red Riders will have their hands full when they tip-off Monday’s schedule against D-IV Final 4 squad Fort Loramie. The Redskins return seven players from last year’s squad that finished the season 19-5. All seven returning players for the Redskins are seniors, led by Janel Olberding. Clair Ruhenkamp, Tessa Benanzer, Brooke Turner, Kristen Zumberger, Tori Mauer and Jana Barga. They are all back with one goal in mind, getting back to Columbus. Playing a powerhouse like Orrville will help prepare coach Carla Siegel’s crew for that undertaking.

Orrville will count on the Plybon sisters, senior Hillary and sophomore Hannah, for offensive production, along with 6-2 senior Sarah Aultz. Sophomores Maggie Davault and Abby Reusser also provide plenty of pop from the perimeter for veteran coach Mark Alberts.

Game 15

Monday, Jan. 17, 11:45 a.m.

Newark Wildcats (7-3) vs. Kenton Ridge Cougars (7-1)

Newark makes its CITC debut this year while Kenton Ridge is back for its third appearance.

“I have seen a lot of basketball in my 27 years as a basketball coach, but have never seen another event quite like this,” said Cougars coach Ed Foulk. “We look forward to the challenge of playing a talented Newark team.”

Kenton Ridge returns four letterwinners from last year’s team that finished the year 18-6. Senior Brooke Pervis and juniors Lindsey Fenwick, Arika Roush and Mariah Harris will provide leadership, with Harris being a top 25 nationally ranked player.

Newark features six returning letterwinners, led by 6-4 sophomore post Paige Cashin. Seniors Aliece Hinton and Kacie Evans, along with juniors Chelsea Steen, Reed Huffman, Kayla Vear, Hallie Landerman, Katie Gordan and Julie Gibson are all back for the Wildcats.

“This will be a great experience for our players,” said Newark coach J.R. Shumate.

Game 16

Monday, Jan. 17, 1:30 p.m.

Indian Hill Braves (6-0) vs. West Holmes Knights (9-1)

Coming off its best-ever 22-win season, the Braves of coach Dr. Scott Rogers will face a tough test in another D-II power West Holmes. Both teams have high hopes and plenty of talent to match those expectations.

Leading the way for the Braves is junior point guard Nicole Bell. Versatile senior wing Katie Marksberry is headed to Xavier next year to play soccer. Senior Kelsey Matthews provides pop from the perimeter, along with junior guard Natalie Newton and Sarah Arington, a 5-10 junior forward.

West Holmes features another solid sister act in senior Lindsy and freshman Laina Snyder. The duo has combined for double figures in scoring and rebounding to lead the undefeated Knights of coach Lisa Patterson.

West Holmes features another pair of freshmen, point guard Emily Molnar and Paiten Strother to go with senior sharpshooter Paige Asche. Sophomore Mallori Vess and junior Mariah Oswalt provide depth on the post.

Game 17

Monday, Jan. 17, 3:15 p.m.

Cincinnati Sycamore Aviators (9-0) vs. Wadsworth Grizzlies (6-2)

Veteran Sycamore coach Paula Hayden is looking forward to her first trip to the CITC, bringing a nice mix of young talent and some big, athletic newcomers.

Chloe Pavlich is a nationally ranked junior guard who has committed to Maryland. Senior Ashley Schaefer and junior Alexis Newbolt are returning letterwinners for the Aviators. Keri Kleist, a 6-2 junior forward who transfered in from Mason, and Mount Notre Dame transfer, senior Courtney Tucker bring some size and skill to the floor for Sycamore. Hannah Locke, a 6-foot sophomore, is also expected to hit new heights for the Aviators.

“We have always played a competitive schedule in Cincinnati, and we welcome the challenge of playing well-respected programs from outside our area,” Hayden said.

Coach Andy Booth’s Grizzlies feature Ashland-bound post player Robyn Rotterschmidt, and point guard Taylor Woods. Sharlee Bailey, Christy Cingel, Kara Long and Jessie Gearhart are returning letterwinners for the Grizzlies.

Game 18

Monday, Jan. 17, 5:00 p.m.

Midpark Meteors (7-1) vs. Princeton Vikings (8-0)

Bolstered by a pair of nationally ranked transfers and a promising 6-1 freshman center to join a pair of returning starters, Midpark coach Stephanie Mentz has every reason to be excited about the prospects of this season and the opportunity to measure up against southwest powerhouse Cincinnati Princeton.

Joining returning starters Kaila Barber and Korie Maryo will be junior point guard Rachel Theriot from Walsh jesuit and 6-2 senior center Therany Dunnigan from closed Regina. Freshman post Stasha Carey is also expected to make an impact this year.

“We are hoping to take our program to the next level and playing in this event will undoubtedly help us move in the right direction,” said Mentz.

The Vikings return three starters from last year’s 22-4 squad. Senior guard Shakeir Lang leads the way, along with junior win Alexus Chinn and nationally ranked sophomore Emily Roper.

Ball State-bound senior Neschelle Williams and a pair of promising freshmen, guard Kelsey Mitchell and forward Chelsea Mitchell have ninth-year coach Jill Phillips excited about this year’s team.

Game 19

Monday, Jan. 17, 6:45 p.m.

Fairborn Skyhawks (8-0) vs. Hathaway Brown Blazers (6-3)

A pair of nationally ranked players lead the way for first-time CITC visitors Fairborn. The Skyhawks of coach Steve Hannaford are led by junior guard Brooklyn Pumroy and sophomore guard Alexis Gassion, both highly acclaimed by the CGBR. Senior forward Candice Alexander and classmats Chelsea Reed, Brianna Breeding and Madison Musich are all returning letterwinners for the Skyhawks.

“It will be a great experience for our girls to have the opportunity to showcase their skills in front of a packed house of very passionate and knowledgeable basketball fans,” said Hannaford.

Hathaway Brown features a pair of prominent post players in 6-2 senior Molly Crosby and 6-3 Sarah Poland. Stephanie Poland is a 6-4 sophomore and Marlena Smith is a 6-3 senior who give the two-time defending state champions a plethora of depth inside.

Senior wing Allana Guy was MVP of the 2009 D-II state tournament, and provides some outside pop for the Blazers.

Game 20

Monday, Jan. 17, 8:30 p.m.

Walsh Jesuit Warriors (2-7) vs. Hiland Hawks (7-1)

The Warriors have only one player returning from last year’s D-II Final 4 team, but 6-1 junior post Lizzy Reeves is quite a player to build a team around. She is a nationally ranked post player by CGBR. Senior guard Kaela Segerson and juniors Courtney Iacobacci, Nina Napolitano and Maddie Sheppard are expected to make big contributions for the Warriors this year.

“We are honored to play host school Berlin Hiland,” said WJ coach Pete Zacarri. “Dave is a great coach and has built a program that is highly respected around the state and beyond. His teams always play great defense and play extremely hard.”