By JON SCHOLLES
The Budget Sports Editor

The Classic in the Country (CitC) Challenge has gone from “one of the best” to “the best girls” basketball event in America in what seems like the blink of an eye.

Although, no one in the CitC camp is one bit surprised.

“At the risk of sounding self-absorbing, I do not undergo anything, or take on any project, unless it has the chance, through hard work and proper organization, to be the best in America,” said Tom Jenkins, director of the CitC and executive director of the Ohio Girls Basketball Report (OGBR). “And I’m very fortunate to have an association, led by [Berlin Hiland] coach Dave Schlabach, who approaches his undertakings the same way.

“So we have a lot of guys that just aren’t satisfied if this isn’t the best in America,” the scouting guru added.

If the past four years haven’t impressed its customers – a puzzling thought in its own right – then the fifth installment will knock their socks off.

This year, CitC will welcome two of the four reigning state champions, three of Ohio’s all-time winningest programs (Toledo Central Catholic, 675; Lima Bath, 618; Youngstown Boardman, 600), two out-of-state powerhouses (Bishop McGuinness, Kernersville, N.C., and Lexington Catholic, Ky.), and 47 nationally ranked players. In all, CitC will showcase 29 teams – 13 of them ranked in the initial Associated Press girls’ basketball poll – in 20 games over the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

The event, which also helps perpetuate the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and former Hiland boys basketball coach Perry Reese Jr., will be held Saturday, January 19, Sunday, January 20 and Monday, January 21 at the Perry Reese Jr. Community Center in Berlin.

“There is a lot of bad basketball that gets played in the state each year,” CitC co-director Dave Schlabach said. “It’s nice that a fan can come in and watch six or seven good games with 12 or 14 really good teams.”

Basketball aside, it’s the Berlin community that made CitC what it is today, Schlabach said.

“We are the only community in the country that can come up with 250 volunteers and 75 sponsors,” the Hiland Lady Hawks coach said. “We are just the only community in the country that you’ll find that. And that’s what makes the event different than anywhere else.”

Jenkins concurred.

“With all the community support, I don’t think there is anywhere else in America where we could have done this,” Jenkins said.

BLOCKBUSTER MATCH-UPS

After a quick evaluation of the line-up, it’s safe to say the Saturday session of the CitC could possibly be the best ever.

With Lakota West (No. 19 on ESPN’s Elite 25, No. 24 on USA Today’s Super 25 and No. 1 in Division I) headlining the day, Jenkins said that’s a show in itself.

“As good as the Classic has been, Saturday may be the best we’ve had,” he said.

Lakota West (13-0) and stud power forward Amber Gray will meet Regina (6-2, No. 2, Div. III) and standout point guard Shay Selby on Saturday at 3:15 p.m. Regina, a storied program to say the least, has won five state titles, and a record four-in-a-row (2000, 2001, 2002, 2003).

Lakota West has already knocked off one of Ohio’s top teams in Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame (No. 4, Div. 1) and is looking for another blockbuster win in hopes of upping its national standing.

“Right now, you have two of the top teams in their respective divisions going up against each other,” said Firebirds coach Andy Fishman. “Regina has all the state championships, and we don’t. But we’re trying to get there.”

“Regina-Lakota West is one of the most intriguing match-ups of the entire event,” Jenkins said.

Although, the Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame (12-2, No. 8 Midwest region) versus Bishop McGuinness (12-3, No. 6 south region) contest Saturday at 5 p.m. should be equally gripping. Both teams won state championships the past two seasons.

MND, which is 7-1 at CitC, has six nationally ranked players including Georgetown-bound Tia McBride (6-1, PF, 15.4 ppg). And Bishop McGuinness boasts the No. 22 center in the land in 6-3 junior Erin Thompson (10.4 ppg, 11.2 rpg).

“They execute, they’re very fundamentally sound and they have a couple of playmakers,” said MND coach Dante Harlan of Bishop McGuinness. “They have a freshman point guard (Whitney Knight) that I have heard a lot of great things about and they have a post player that’s extremely good. Any time we come to the Classic in the Country, we expect a game.”

Bishop McGuinness coach Brian Robinson repaid the compliment.

“They’re an exceptional team, and have been for a very long time,” Robinson said. “They are very solid and very well coached.”

Bishop McGuinness will face off against Chaminade-Julienne (11-2, No. 3, Div. I) Monday at 3:15 p.m. in another key showdown. The Eagles are coming off a 63-48 loss to MND.

In other action, Hoover (13-1, No. 11, Div. I) will square off against Africentric (12-1, No. 3, Div. IV) Saturday at 6:45 p.m.

Both teams have had success in beating big time programs this year:

Hoover knocked off Washington High (South Bend, Ind.) and Regina, while Africentric defeated Hathaway Brown and Eastmoor Academy – twice. Hoover is led by its bigs; Northwestern-bound Brittany Orban (6-foot, 25.0 ppg, 13.0 rpg) and Akron signee Kyle Baumgartner (6-3, 17.7 ppg, 11.0 rpg). On the flip side, the balanced Nubians are headed up by Xavier recruit Tyeasha Moss (5-9, 15.6 ppg, 5.0 apg) and UMass-bound Alesia Howard (5-10, SF).

“[Africentric] is very athletic and they get after it and get going,” said Vikings coach Paul Wackerly, who tallied a 207-54 (.793) record over his 12-years at Hoover. “On Africentric, you just have to be ready to play because they capitalize on mistakes. You have to be on top of things and very disciplined… We have our work cut out for us.”

Africentric coach Will McKinney said his Nubians always like to play the best, and Hoover is one of them.

“Hoover is definitely one of the best around,” the fifth-year coach said. “And they have one of the best players in the state in Brittany Orban. I think she’ll have an excellent chance at Ms. Basketball. I look forward to playing against them, and getting ourselves prepared for the upcoming tournament.

“… Both teams play hard. Both teams like to defend. Both teams like to get out and run a little bit. And both teams have top-notch players. So honestly, we kind of mirror each other,” McKinney added.

Africentric comes into the CitC boasting the best offensive output, scoring 81.2 ppg.

Following the Africentric game, Hoover will face a new challenge Sunday at 8:45 p.m. in national powerhouse Lexington Catholic (13-2), which is 2-0 against Hoover and 13-2 (.866) all-time against Ohio teams. The Lady Knights are 30-8 (.789) in out-of-state tournaments.

Natalie Novosel, who has committed to Notre Dame, is the No. 11 off guard in the nation.

“It will be a highly competitive game, just how it’s been the past two years,” Lexington Catholic coach Jeff Hans said. “They’ll try to knock us off, and we’ll be ready for them.”

HOMETOWN SHOWDOWNS

As a perfect conclusion to an action packed Saturday, CitC host Hiland (12-1, No. 1, Div. IV) and star wing guard Jena Stutzman will face Div. I giant Brookhaven (11-2) at 8:30 p.m. Hiland won Div. IV state championships in 2000, 2005 and 2006, and Brookhaven won the Columbus City league 12 of the last 14 years including nine straight.

Hiland’s fairly balanced, averaging three players in double figures (Stutzman 16.7 ppg, Kristi Yoder 11.1 and Karli Mast 10.0). Senior Da’Keisha Mann, a nationally ranked small forward, is leading the Bearcats with 18.6 ppg. Mann holds the CitC scoring record, dropping 33 against Hoover a year ago.

“They’re really athletic, and they’ve got the kid with the CitC scoring record,” said Schlabach, who has a 355-55 record over 17 seasons as Lady Hawks coach. “If she can score 33 on Hoover, that’s telling you something. Yeah, they’re really good.”

Brookhaven coaching legend Reggie Lee expressed his excitement for the meeting.

“They do a lot of things that we don’t get to see in our league,” said Lee, who’s racked up a sterling 433-127 ledger in 26-years at Brookhaven. “They like to run a lot of back door cuts, dribble-drive penetration, and use a lot of screens. That will give a different look, which is good going into the tournament. But overall, we match-up with each other pretty well.”

Hiland will then take on Hathaway Brown (10-3, No. 7, Div. II) Monday at 8:30 p.m. The Blazers were the Div. II state runner-up a year ago.

Angela Groves (6-2, P), a Princeton-signee, eclipsed the 1,000-point plateau this season, and is leading the Blazers in scoring. She is backed-up by Mylan Woods (5-10, SF), nationally ranked as the No. 3 small forward in the sophomore class.

“We’re a team that’s going to push the ball, and we’re going to play as uptempo as possible,” Hathaway Brown coach Paul Barlow said. “So it should be a great game in a great atmosphere.”

In other local action, Scott Bardall and his Garaway Lady Pirates (12-1, Div. III) will meet up with Orrville (10-3, Div. III) Monday at 10 a.m.

Garaway is paced by the sensational play of Laura Bardall, a top 50 senior and soon-to-be Findlay Oiler. Bardall is averaging 20.7 ppg with 7.5 rpg and 4.5 apg.

Orrville’s strength is in its size: The Red Riders have a nasty post trio of junior Libby Ladrach (6-3, C) and sophomores Breanna Hochstetler (6-3, C) and Erin Short (6-1, C).

Scott Bardall, a former Orrville girls’ basketball coach, said the Red Riders’ size is a bit concerning.

“They have exceptional size, as well as speed. So we will have to control tempo,” said Scott Bardall, who has a 74-12 record in four years as the Lady Pirates’ coach. “They are a team that goes through spurts; they use pressure, try to turn you over and then capitalize quickly.”

Finally, West Holmes (10-2, Div. II) will match-up against Canfield (10-1, No. 10, Div. II) Monday at 5 p.m.

The Lady Knights have two nationally ranked players in Noelle Yoder (5-6, PG), the No. 16 point guard in the sophomore class, and junior Sarah Hammond (6-2, C), listed as the No. 68 center in her class.

“Canfield is ranked in the top ten, hopefully this will give us a good indication on where we fall,” second-year Lady Knights coach Lisa Patterson said. “It will be a good measuring stick for the remainder of the season.

“… We both have a strong inside presence and good guard play,” the West Holmes coach added. “So I think it will come down to who takes care of the ball and stays out of foul trouble.”

The Cardinals’ Kate Popovec (6-4, C), a Pittsburgh recruit, is a menacing force inside, and is vacuuming in a CitC best 13.1 rpg.

NATIONALLY RECOGNIZED HEADLINERS

As 47 nationally ranked players take center stage, it’s Gray that will draw top billing.

Gray, a 6-1 power forward, is the third best PF in the land, and the 10th best player overall. The McDonald’s All-American nominee and Tennessee signee is leading the Firebirds with 17.1 ppg and 11.0 rpg.

“Pretty much anything you want done in a game, she can do,” said Fishman, who has a 152-78 (.661) record over his 11-year stay at Lakota West.

Lakota West also employs the second best power forward in the junior class in Alexis Roger (6-1). She has already committed to play at St. Francis, Penn. Junior point guard Tess Elkins is also nationally ranked (62nd).

Other than Gray, many eyes will be focused on Regina’s Selby, a 5-8 point guard committed to Duke. Selby, also a McDonald’s All-American nominee, is the sixth best PG in the senior class, and 30th best player overall. Selby is averaging 25.4 ppg with 6.2 apg for the Royals.

Gray, Selby, Orban as well as Ayana Dunning of Eastmoor Academy (not playing in CitC) are prime candidates for this year’s Ms. Basketball Ohio, Jenkins said.

“To see players that not only go to a top-25 school, but will impact those programs, is very entertaining,” Jenkins said. “And that’s what draws me to a game.”

Natasha Howard (6-3) of Toledo Waite is the top-rated PF in the sophomore class, and third best overall.

While most schools are lucky to have one player gain national recognition, Mount Notre Dame has an unprecedented six: 6-foot senior Tia McBride; 6-foot senior Channing Hillman; 6-2 junior Kendall Hackney; 5-10 junior Gabby Smith; 5-6 junior Ashley Fowler; 5-5 freshman Kathryn Reynolds.

“Kids want to come and play for a successful program, and they know we are going to prepare them for the next level,” Harlan said. “We trust their ability on the court, and we trust their decisions. We allow them to play the game, and we don’t hold them back.”

RECORD ATTENDANCE

A year ago, CitC set a new turnout record with 21,090 fans attending the 20 games, an 11 percent spike from the previous year. The attendance at the seven-game Saturday session was estimated at 9,937, thanks in large part to the Columbus Africentric versus Warsaw River View contest, which saw 2,200 people cram into the 1,800 seat Reese Center.

“The Holmes County, Sugarcreek and Eastern Ohio areas have very rabid basketball fans,” Jenkins said. “And we felt that putting a quality program out there would generate their interest. It’s an opportunity for this region to see quality basketball that they would not normally see.”