Coaching feat puts Ensor on lofty perch

By Jamie Combs

   Like a spindle of thread feeding the trademark hum of a sewing machine, Unaka High's Donald Ensor has become a nice piece of stitchwork on the fabric of coaching success.
   That was never more evident when the Rangers' 106-81 victory over Clinch Monday afternoon made Ensor the all-time wins' leader in Unaka boys basketball.
   "This is not something I had planned on or foreseen when I first started," said Ensor, currently in his ninth season as Unaka's head coach. "It's a big achievement in one way because I know what Ronnie Snavely did in this program. At the same time, we're just an extension of what he started."
   Notching his 170th career victory, Ensor slipped past his mentor and former coach in Snavely, who achieved legendary status at Unaka -- racking up 169 wins and leading the Rangers to their two state-tournament appearances (1985 and 1988) -- during an 11-year career.
   Ensor (170-108), a standout player on the '85 Unaka club, served as Snavely's assistant for five years before succeeding him in 1993.
   Seeing one of his prize pupils come so far so fast, Snavely can certainly beam with pride.
   "We're still close," said Snavely. "He's kind of like a son, and I couldn't be happier. I'm still proud of the program. I feel like I got the program going and he's really carried it on. It's kind of like family business. The father starts the business and passes it down to the son, and he passes it on.
   "I had high expectations for him and he's probably exceeded them. He's done an outstanding job."
   The highlights of Ensor's coaching accomplishments are four 20-win seasons, six conference titles (includes at least a share of this year's Watauga Valley title), four district tournament championships, three trips to the regional finals, two sub-state games, two sectional berths and one regional crown.
   After guiding the Rangers to 11 victories his rookie campaign, Ensor has since watched his teams win no less than 19 games (excluding 2001-2002) in all but one season.
   "We've had some great players," said Ensor, averaging nearly 20 wins per year. "We've had some determined and motivated players, we've had some hard-working players and we've had some very talented individuals.
   "We've had players that understood we are a well-backed community team. The community takes a lot of pride in the product we put on the floor. That's had a whole lot to do with the success we've had."
   With those things in mind, Ensor was asked, "What aspect of your coaching philosophy has served you well time and time again?"
   "We're always learning," Ensor said. "We've played several different styles over the last nine years and we've been pretty successful with all of them. Trying to adapt and find the best situation to let your players be successful -- that's been one thing we've really worked on."
   Ensor is quick to lavish praise on his two assistant coaches: Richard Thomas and Johnny Ensor.
   A fixture on the Unaka bench the last 10 years, Thomas has served under Donald every step of the way, while Johnny is in his seventh season working as an assistant for his older brother.
   "A lot of our success is due to Johnny and Richard," said Donald. "We've got a unique situation. We all three played at the same place and we played under the same man. Our ideas are very similar. We sometimes have our differences and we challenge each other often, but those two are not afraid to work."
   The two assistants were key Unaka components on Snavely's '88 state qualifier. Thomas was also a member of the '85 squad.
   Bring the different parts of the Ensor/Thomas/Ensor association together and you've got a formula for coaching stability and an undeniable devotion to Unaka High.
   "I think any situation where you've got coaches who went to school there, you're going to have some continuity," said Thomas. "We all played together in one form or fashion and we've known each other for years. As we played we learned from each other and as we developed as coaches we learned from each other. It all goes hand-in-hand.
   "We're Rangers. We take a lot of pride in our school and community. It really means something to us to have Unaka be successful."
   By the way Johnny Ensor talks, he thoroughly enjoys his role in the Unaka program.
   "I couldn't imagine a better situation," he said. "I get to work with Donald, who's my best friend and my brother. I get to be with him every day. Richard and I go way back. We played ball together and he's one of my best friends. We all get along real well. We always seem to be on the same page."
   If these three coaches are indeed on the same page, the Ronnie Snavely pipeline definitely put them there.
   It's difficult not to notice that Snavely remains a very strong presence in Unaka's basketball program, and many of his methods have been carried over by Donald Ensor.
   "Still to this day, Ronnie Snavely has a hands-on approach with the program," said Donald. "He's not separated from this program. He may not coach the team anymore, but he still coaches the coaches.
   "He taught me how to work -- he left nothing out -- and his work ethic was second to none."
   Said Snavely: "I go to the games with them and scout. I still feel like I'm part of the program. It's kind of like the dad and the sons. Sometimes I get on them. They come to me for advice at times, then sometimes we don't agree. It's kind of neat."
   There have been other strong basketball influences for Unaka's "Three Musketeers." Donald and Johnny played elementary ball for their dad, Dennie, at Midway, while Thomas received plenty of guidance from his father, Jerry.
   Ultimately, Donald and his two main men are getting the job done, which the coaches say wouldn't be possible without the overwhelming support they get from home.
   "There's an old saying, 'Behind every good man is a good woman,'" said Johnny. "That's true in all three of our cases."
   Donald's wife, the former Stephanie Hardin; Richard's wife, the former Vikki Morris; and Johnny's wife, the former Robin Hodge, each graduated from Unaka, where Stephanie and Robin contributed to the glory days (1980s) of Lady Ranger basketball.
   "They all understand the basketball lifestyle," said Donald.
   Thomas added: "With the time we spend (in coaching), you never have to go home and be questioned about it."
   Unquestionably, Donald Ensor has taken his place on a lofty perch at Unaka High.