By DAVE MAST

When Hiland coach Dave Schlabach and Ohio Girls Basketball Report author Tom Jenkins gathered in the basement of North Canton Hoover head coach Paul Wackerly’s house five years ago, little did they understand the significance of what they were about to do.

The trio were brainstorming about how they could create a girls basketball showcase, while injecting some life in Holmes County — an Amish community which thrives on tourism, but is nearly dormant during the winter months.

Enter Classic in the Country Challenge, which has quickly evolved into a massive economic boon for the county, as well as one of the most prominent avenues for the nation’s collegiate coaches to scout up-and-coming talent.

In five short years, the Classic has gone from a concept in a basement to an event which annually generates an estimated $1.4 million in revenue for the county — and continues to grow in stature.

January in Holmes County — at least on the Martin Luther King Day weekend — isn’t an off-season anymore.

“Conservatively, the Classic generates more than $1 million per year,” said Shasta Mast, director of the Holmes County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism.

Mast uses a statewide formula based on the average amount of money a tourist spends when staying overnight in an area, as well as one who comes and visits for the day.

But what those numbers don’t figure in are the return trips visitors to the Classic will make to see more of Amish Country, which means those numbers could be even higher.

In an economic downtime for the county, the basketball showcase has been a shot in the arm for Amish Country.

“I can’t stress enough how important this is for our economy in January,” said Mast. “It has revitalized our county in the winter.”

Mast said that while she knew it could be something big, she never dreamed it would be this big this soon.

“It has surpassed all of our expectations,” said Mast. “We knew it had potential, but this… this is astounding.”

Another person who was surprised by the rapid growth of the event is Ben Mast of the Holmes County Amish Flea Market, the Classic’s main sponsor.

Mast jumped on board because his daughter, Julie, came up through Schlabach’s Lady Hawks’ basketball program.

As a coach, Schlabach demands a lot from his girls — you have to in order to create a dominant program in today’s game.

But Schlabach also demands a lot from his coaching staff, and even more from himself. He puts a great deal of importance on preparing his girls for a future which extends far beyond the gym floor, and wants to help prepare them for their lives beyond basketball.

That is something Ben Mast believes in, having seen it happen in his own daughter, who now ‘runs the show here at the Flea Market’ as Mast puts it.

Because of his faith in Schlabach to do something and do it right, he volunteered to be the main sponsor for the event, despite his flea market being closed during the event.

“Dave has been good to us, and good for this community, and he has poured himself into this program and this event.” said Mast. “I consider it an honor and a privilege to get to be a part of this.

“Dave’s commitment to creating something special and working hard to achieve it was the deciding factor for us.”

But did Mast see the economic value when he signed on?

“Unbelievable,” said Mast of the nearly instant success of the Classic. “We had no idea. But when you put two guys like Dave and Tom together, who work so hard, something positive is going to happen, and it’s only going to get bigger.”

Even as the Masts prepare to recreate their flea market into a convention center, they have no intention of abandoning the Classic as its biggest sponsor.

“We don’t see a penny from this, and some people might say it’s bad business, but we’re going to stay right with the program as we move into becoming a convention center,” said Mast.

“It’s the right thing to do. And we see the big picture, not short term, but down the road. It’s a great thing for our community, which makes it good for us.”