Rangers hit their peak  at right time

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   The Unaka basketball players must be eating their Frosted Flakes. Just like Tony the Tiger, the Rangers have been great the last few weeks.
   Unaka swept through the District and Region 1-A Tournaments, and on Monday night defeated Sunbright 78-58 to advance to the TSSAA State Tournament in Murfreesboro next week.
   Things were looking very dicey for the Rangers right before the tournaments started.
   The Rangers lost 11 times during the season, but played a horrendous schedule. Although Unaka played several Class AA and Class AAA teams, it might have been a loss to somebody in its own conference that gave the Rangers the wake-up call they needed.
   On Feb. 8, Unaka lost to Cloudland in Roan Mountain by a score of 54-42. The loss forced Unaka to share the conference title with the Highlanders, and opened the eyes of Ranger star Aaron Dugger.
   "That woke us up," Dugger said. "We really came in flat. I guess we were a little overconfident. That really woke us up, and we said 'hey, we can be beat.' We knew we had to start playing as a team."
   Dugger mentioned about playing as a team, and obviously the Rangers have learned their lesson. Every Unaka player who has played has pitched in during the Rangers' ride into the state tournament.
   Monday night was no exception, as six players scored at least six points.
   Unaka has been on a mission the last few weeks, and it started on a cold night in Hampton right before the District 1-A tournament.
   It the season finale for the Bulldogs and the Rangers, and both teams were looking for a boost going into the postseason.
   Unaka was coming off the loss to Cloudland, and it was hungry for a victory.
   The Rangers pulled off a 68-56 upset over the Bulldogs, and made it be known they were going to be tough at tournament time.
   "That was a big boost coming into the tournaments," Dugger said. "We knew it was a big rival game, and we knew that was the way it was going to be in the tournaments, with the crowd and stuff and everybody going for your throat."
   Unaka head coach Donald Ensor knew the Rangers were on thin ice late in the regular season, but believes his team has regrouped very nicely.
   "They knew tournaments were coming up, and they totally refocused," Ensor said. "We're playing some of our best basketball right now."
   The Rangers also reaped the benefits of the tough schedule. The Watauga Valley Conference was very difficult this year, with Cloudland becoming a powerhouse, North Greene being a surprise, and University High being extremely talented.
   But throw in teams like Sullivan Central and the Arby's Classic, and the Rangers have earned their ticket.
   "We've not dodged anybody," Ensor said. "They've played everybody from the Bahamas to Germany to the No. 1 ranked single-A school. These guys have been dragged through the fire."
   Unaka sophomore Rusty Chambers believes the tough schedule was a huge benefit to the Rangers.
   "Playing these sorry teams wouldn't have helped us that much," Chambers said. "That's why coach scheduled the hardest teams that we could schedule."
   The Rangers won't have the best record, but their chances are very good. Unaka has been very hungry the last few weeks, and Chambers is very confident about Unaka's chances.
   "If we come out and play hard, we'll win," he said.