Berlin, Ohio -- Each January talented high-school girls' basketball players and teams, as well as hopeful college recruiters, find their way to this small Amish community in northeastern Ohio for one of the top in-season scholastic tournaments. This year, Classic in the Country VIII has offered up a deep and competitive field that has lived up the standard set in previous events.
Over three days, 31 schools from, Ohio, Kentucky and South Carolina will compete in 20 games that will highlight teams and players alike. Today we take a look at three of the top regarded teams competing over the first two days and later in the week will look at some of the outstanding individual performances from this year's tournament.
Twinsburg, (Twinsburg, Ohio): This is the second opportunity we've had to see this talented team in action and it's hard not to be more and more impressed each time it plays. Winning both of their games, the Twinsburg Tigers demonstrated that they have the talent, depth and discipline to compete with virtually any team they line up against. It would be easy and understandable to attribute their success to high-profile prospects Malina Howard and Ashley Morrissette, but it would also be selling the Tigers short. Yes, the 6-foot-4 Howard is the No. 21 player in the ESPN HoopGurlz Super 60 and Morrissette likely will be ranked as one of the top guards in the 2013 class when the time comes. Senior and 5-5 combo Katie Fox and junior 5-8 Leah Fechko continue to make plays as we've seen before, but additional depth was evident in Berlin that could be critical to their run at a state title. Junior LaShawna Gatewood, a 5-10 wing, provided quality minutes and some play that had the courtside recruiters making some notes. Sophomore forward Char-Dell Dunnigan has the size and build that could allow her to take some pressure off Howard as well as begin to create an identity for herself.
This is a team capable of playing in transition as well as setting up in the halfcourt. It has perimeter as well as interior scoring threats and multiple individuals capable of stepping up on any given night. Defensively the Tigers are aggressive and look to create their offense from both opponent's misses and turnovers. An Achilles' heel that may pop up could be turnovers. Despite winning both games they committed a combined 45 turnovers and showed an occasional flash of carelessness with their passing. Granted Manual is an exceptional defensive team and Twinsburg did take the win despite 33 turnovers, but no team or coach is going to enjoy watching that video.
DuPont Manual, (Louisville, Ky.): If you're looking for a team which going to make a living off its opponent's miscues, panic and turnovers, this is one to watch. In games with two of Ohio's most talented Division I programs all the Crimsons did was force 54 turnovers and create havoc with their defensive pressure baseline to baseline. In only two of the eight quarters they played in Berlin did they give up more than 20 points and, in both games, they held the opposition to 60 or less in the scoring column. Attacking from start to finish, the Crimsons utilized their quickness and speed as well as some impressive off ball anticipation to come away with 38 steals against some highly regarded competition.
DuPont Manual's defensive success and consistency is critical since the offensive end tends to be a roller coaster. The Crimsons can put up a bunch of points in a hurry but they also find things frosty around their own rim. In half of the quarters they played they posted 84 points; the remaining four, only 33. This definitely is not the kind of consistency that helps coaches sleep at night. Junior April Wilson, an early commit to Purdue, is a quick and explosive guard at 5-7, as is classmate LeAsia Wright. Consistency came from 5-10 senior Mechael Guess who shot a combined 12 of 24 from the field for the event. DuPont Manual is not a big team and was outrebounded in both contests. However its aggressive approach and dynamic athleticism make up for a lack of inches as well as dictate a pace that is going to be difficult for teams with more size to maintain. The Crimson's biggest challenge is going to be converting their defensive success into points on the scoreboard and their toughest opponent for that may well be who they see in the mirror.
Start, (Toledo, Ohio): Start came into the Classic in the Country undefeated and ranked No. 13 in the Powerade Fab 50. Its spilt, which included a win over Myrtle Beach and a loss to DuPont Manual, offered some glimpses of their potential and depth as well as a few concerns that might need some attention. There's no question that this is a talented roster. Ohio State-bound Maleeka Kynard, a 5-6 point guard, is as quick as they come and 6-2 Kentucky signee and forward Azia Bishop's consistent improvement makes for a pretty good one-two punch. Demonstrating some advancement and maturity to her game was 5-10 junior guard Jaymie Jackson. Her 11-of-15 shooting over both games as well as her aggressive individual attack provided an assertiveness that seems to be missing at times for the Spartans. Senior Ariel Gaston didn't shoot the ball exceptionally well but provided additional offensive aggressiveness that kept defenders on their toes. On the bench additional interior depth is there in 6-4 junior post Ce'Dra Evans once she earns her way into the rotation and taps into the obvious potential that available to her.
Start has the mentality as well as the talent to be an exceptional transition team. The Spartans look to push the ball and have the rebounding strength to finish their defense and start the break. Scoring on the run may be critical as they struggled to find consistency in their overall offense in the course of both games. In five of the eight quarters they played Start posted 12 or fewer points for a total of 49. That averages out to only 1.2 points per minute, posing some real challenges when tournament time rolls around. Only twice did they put up 20 or more in a period, but when they did it was quick and impressive. The depth they have in potential scorers as well as their balance in perimeter and interior threats should make them the worst nightmare of any opposing defense. At times it still seems as though they're waiting for something to happen rather than creating their own opportunities. Maybe the loss to Manual will be the catalyst they need to take what they want.
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Mark Lewis is the national recruiting coordinator for ESPN HoopGurlz. Twice ranked as one of the top 25 assistant coaches in the game by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, he has more than 20 years of college coaching experience at Memphis State, Cincinnati, Arizona State, Western Kentucky and, most recently, Washington State. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.