Getting an invite to CitC Challenge about as tough as getting Super Bowl tickets

Daily Record Sports Writer

BERLIN — One of the toughest tickets in town to get Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend is at the Classic of the Country. And it’s not a problem at the ticket gate, like usual.

Teams around the state of Ohio hope and dream, much like the fans, they can be part of the event when it rolls around each January. But usually only 30 get invited.

This year, the showcase’s fifth, has seen 29 teams get the nod. Usually they’re all in the midst of strong pushes for state titles, league crowns and national recognition.

“You’ll get a game like Regina-Lakota West,” said Hiland coach Dave Schlabach, whose school hosts the Classic. “You’ve got a Tennessee signee (Amber Gray) playing and a Duke signee (Shay Selby) playing. Every game it seems like there’s a Div. I player playing.”

And it’s been that way the entire time. And the fact that it’s happened that way is quite amazing.

Back in 2000, Schlabach, North Canton Hoover coach Paul Wackerly and soon-to-be tournament director Tom Jenkins got together in Jenkins’ basement to devise a plan. And that idea has worked to perfection all five times.

The committee sends out invitations to come and play 14 months in advance. For example, this past Tuesday, teams were supposed to reply as to whether or not they wanted to play in the 2009 Classic. By the time the event rolls around this weekend, its likely coaches and media members will have seen what next season’s schedule looks like.

“The fact that Tom plans this 14 months in advance is amazing,” Schlabach said.

But the system hasn’t failed.

There are two types of teams that get invited to the Classic. There are the local/regional (West Holmes, Orrville) teams and the others are non-regional teams (No. 21 nationally by USA Today Lakota West and No. 9 Lexington Catholic).

They both have different qualities that make them enticing.

“No. 1, is do we expect them to be ranked in the first AP poll?” said Jenkins of how teams get invited from afar. “No. 2 is does a team have any major prospects and then do they have multiple prospects in the sophomore and junior class?”

Jenkins, who also runs the Ohio Girls Basketball Report, a scouting service for college coaches, has a pretty good idea who’s who in Ohio hoops. But he doesn’t stop with just the elite teams from around the state.

Local teams other than Hiland usually have a good shot at bids.

“You have to look at how competitive they would be against state-wide competition,” Jenkins said. “Then you look at their fan base and see if they have a following. If they have those two things then they’re qualified to get an invite.”

Teams are already showing interest in attending the Classic in the Country VII and VIII, which are still two and three years into the future. But it wasn’t always that way.

For the first Classic in 2004, the crew from Berlin had to send out invitations to several teams around the state.

“The first year we did this we were shooting for 33 teams,” Jenkins said. “We sent out 99 invitations and we were going to accept the first 33 that came back.

“Probably the biggest reason for success was because we were honoring Dr. King and (late Hiland) coach (Perry) Reese. I think the following year our letters went from, ‘You’re cordially invited,’ to, ‘You’ve been accepted to come.'”

Which has resulted in a waiting list and quite a complicated scheduling procedure once games are locked down. For example, there are many teams in the eastern portion of Ohio that can’t play on Sunday. Smithville is one of those.

On top of that, teams from Columbus live by the same rules and also aren’t allowed to play on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The latter reason somewhat frustrates Jenkins since the event is set up to honor the civil rights leader.

“It takes a lot of co-ordinating,” Jenkins said. “Saturday you’ll see a lot of Columbus teams, and Sunday will have lots of Cincinnati teams. Then Monday historically has lots of teams from the region.”

Teams that come from a great distance, such as this year’s out-of-staters — Lexington (Ky.) Catholic and Bishop McGuinness (N.C.) — get the first dibs on playing two games on the weekend. On top of that, the host Hawks always get to play a pair of games, which have always been the nightcaps Saturday and Monday.

So does Hiland get preferential treatment because they host the event?

“Obviously not, they’re on a three-game skid,” Jenkins said. “But all coach Schlabach asks is that he gets a game in which his team is challenged.”

But each year, perennial powerhouses and consistent state contenders get the snub from the Classic, no matter how fair the Classic tries to be.

“Every year,” Jenkins said. “But we’ll try to bring in teams that haven’t been invited or rotate which teams come in from certain cities.”

It’s one of the few times the event fails to please everyone. But those that are invited are thoroughly pleased — with good reason.