WHEELING - Like nearly any collegiate president or athletics director will tell you, athletics are the front door to a university.
Dr. Gregory Merrick, executive director of the Schiffler Cancer Center, Urologic Research Institute and Men's Health Center at Wheeling Hospital, has worked hard to apply that same theory to men's health as Director of the Cancer Research Classic.
''At its inception, we wanted to use the celebrity of basketball to increase the awareness of men's health,'' Merrick said Thursday at the hospital, where he and other officials announced the star-studded lineup for the seventh playing of the event, to be held Jan. 3-4 at Wheeling Jesuit University.
Wheeling Jesuit athletics director and men’s basketball coach Danny Sacomb speaks about the 7th Annual Cancer Research Classic, an event which has dramatically grown over the years.
To that end, the CRC provides an opportunity for men not only to witness two days of high school basketball at its highest level, but also to obtain free health screenings.
''To watch from where it started to see where it is now is unbelievable,'' said Wheeling Jesuit men's basketball coach and athletics director Danny Sancomb, who has been along for the ride with the CRC since its beginning. ''Doctor Merrick has worked very hard for this. We at Wheeling Jesuit are very fortunate we can host this and the exposure that we get from it. But also what we do over there is educate, and now we have an opportunity to educate on men's health. To see the people come through and the men get in line and learn a little bit more about setting up doctor appointments and what they need to what they need to do is very important to what we do, and that is educating.''
They've proven a top-notch high school basketball classic is a good way to get that done, which is why Merrick was proud to reveal the eight teams that make up the seventh CRC, many of which are preseason Top-20 prep teams that figure to continue a tradition that has seen more than 300 alumni go on to play college basketball and a handful already reach the NBA.
Among the familiar names in the fray are Montverde Academy, Neumann-Goretti, St. Joseph's Prep, Prime Prep Academy, Gonzaga, Whitney Young, Bishop Gorman, St. Benedict's Prep, and Wheeler, along with locals Wheeling Park and Wheeling Central.
In the case of highly touted Montverde Academy and Prime Prep - both among the top three in the land in preseason polls - they'll each play Friday and Saturday night, the first time teams will play more than one game at the CRC.
Quite simply, CRC has become a must-see for any high school basketball fan, near or far.
''My dream was to make this a national event,'' said Merrick, who has done just that. ''It was to be able to highlight our valley, our people, our institutions, and to make this something bigger than just a high school event. I think we've done that.''
Last year, the CRC played host to fans from 16 states and Canada, as well as national media, including televised games on ESPN, which Merrick called a ''game changer.''
It's something that makes the hearts of those in charge of the CRC swell.
''That type of exposure can't be bought,'' Merrick said. ''A small city, a small university, our medical center, we can't buy that type of exposure.
''The viewership was huge.''
The schedule includes what has become an annual dinner and speaker on the Thursday prior to the first tip at Oglebay's Glessner Auditorium. Merrick has been able to bring top-notch speakers for this particular event, including Clark Kellogg and Dino Gaudio, and he promised this year will be no different, though because he was only 99 percent sure he had a commitment, he could not name names Thursday.
They'll also continue to offer a seminar for skill development for college basketball in the fall.
To the folks in charge of Wheeling Hospital and Wheeling Jesuit, as well as those who sponsor the event or help in any way, Merrick said, ''You've really made this a national event. It's something that our entire community can be proud about.''