It's hard to believe that it's been more than a dozen years since Hiland High School (Berlin, Ohio) basketball coach Perry Reese died of a brain tumor in 2000.
Huggins, one of eastern Ohio's winningest and most prolific coaches, Reese came to the heart of Amish country in 1984 and built the Hiland Hawk boys basketball program into one of the state's finest.
But Reese's legacy lives on in the hearts of Hiland fans, and the school has honored his and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s memory each year since 2004 by hosting the Classic in the Country Challenge girls basketball weekend.
Classic in the Country celebrated its 10th year Jan. 19-21, and it was the second year I drove down to Berlin to watch some of the games.
It's become the finest showcase of high school girls basketball talent in the state. Twenty games featuring some of Ohio's and surrounding states' best teams are played over the three days.
This year, 29 teams competed. Some teams play two games, others play just one. It is not a tournament format, and no champion is crowned.
Of 26 teams competing this year from Ohio, 16 were ranked in Associated Press' top 15 in the state's four divisions.
Of the 36 Ohio state champions crowned during the event's first nine years, 27 competed at Berlin during the year they won their titles, and each nationally ranked Ohio team during that span has competed. All of Ohio's Ms. Basketball awardees in those nine years have played there.
The three out-of-state teams this year came from Maryland, Colorado and Tennessee.
I watched the first three games of Saturday's seven-game card and saw Orrville top Reedsville Eastern 81-48, Hathaway Brown defeat Sylvania Northview 52-35 and West Holmes beat Columbus Africentric 62-50.
West Holmes, which is the other school district in Holmes County along with East Holmes, where Hiland is the high school, was ranked No. 1 in Division II heading into this week. Hiland was ranked No. 3 in Division III.
West Holmes and Hiland, both of which advanced to the state tournament last year, won their two contests in the Classic. Aurora's western neighbor -- Twinsburg -- beat Cincinnati Princeton 55-37 and Reynoldsburg 45-38.
I covered Hiland and West Holmes when I worked for The Budget in Sugarcreek from 1984-86. The West Holmes girls won three straight state titles in that stretch. Reese's first year with the Hiland boys was 1984.
Orrville's 81 points was just one point off the Classic's record for most points scored in a game.
Several of the Classic's players already have committed to play basketball in college, including Twinsburg's Ashley Morrissette (Purdue), Char-dell Dunnigan (George Mason) and Brooke Smith (Cleveland State).
ORIGINS OF THE CLASSIC
It was 2002 when Hiland girls basketball coach Dave Schlabach and Ohio Girls Basketball Report Executive Director Tom Jenkins first discussed establishing an event that would perpetuate the legacy of Reese and honor King.
They wanted to make it like a basketball festival to showcase top girls teams -- not a tournament. They wanted to match up teams from the inner city and isolated rural areas to help build bridges over cultural divides.
The founders credit some 300 volunteers who help with the event each year for making it run smoothly and successfully.
Each game attracts more than 1,000 fans, and it is estimated that the Classic has generated close to $14 million for the Holmes County economy in the last 10 years.
Heading into the current season, Schlabach coached the Hiland girls to 439 wins, two undefeated seasons, 12 state tourney appearances and four state titles, while his younger brother Mark has been Hiland's boys coach the last seven years, with state crowns the last two.
ABOUT PERRY REESE
When Huggins, father of current West Virginia University coach Bob Huggins, ended his illustrious coaching career in 1984 after guiding the Hawks for three years -- he won state titles with Strasburg and Indian Valley South previously -- Reese, who grew up in Canton, came on the scene.
In his first couple of years at the helm, there was some animosity toward Reese throughout the community. He was one of only a handful of black residents in Holmes County.
He told many folks the tale of being turned down because of his race when he tried to rent an apartment, and of being the target of threats now and then.
But after residents saw the job he did molding the Hawks into a perennial small school powerhouse -- Hiland had 108 boys and 92 girls enrolled last year -- he became a friend to almost everybody in the community.
When I covered the Hawks, Reese was not a teacher at the school. In fact, he didn't have a college degree. But he earned that from Muskingum College and became a social studies teacher at Hiland.
In 16 years of coaching, his teams compiled a 304-85 record, a winning percentage of 78.1. The Hawks won the state title in 1992, made the Final 4 three other times and won 11 Inter-Valley Conference and 11 sectional crowns.
The newer of two gymnasiums at Hiland has been named the Perry Reese Community Center. It seats about 1,600 fans, and the stands are packed for many games. It was built with $1.3 million in private donations.
Sports Illusrated's Gary Smith told Reese's story in 2001, and movie-TV producer Jerry Bruckheimer of "Remember the Titans" fame purchased the rights to Smith's story in 2001 for a possible future movie.
That movie has never been made, but many who knew Reese -- myself included -- hope that Bruckheimer will carry out his plan some day.
When Reese, who died at age 48, entered the Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Association's Hall of Fame in 2001, his bio contained the following notation:
"Coach Reese was a man whose professional career transcended race and religion. He pushed players to perform at maximum efficiency. Those who went through his program developed an undying love for the coach.
"That love was reciprocated, for he would do anything for his kids. Perry was well-respected by the entire community and by his opponents as well. He was a credit to the coaching profession. He represented the virtues of teaching and education."
I'm glad to acknowledge that the man touched my life, if only for a brief time. And through the Classic in the Country Challenge, he will continue to touch my life and the lives of many others, even those who didn't know him.
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