Rangers get set for No. 1 Ezell

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   MURFREESBORO -- The Unaka Rangers have been like the Steve Miller Band during the postseason. They've been flying like an eagle the last three weeks.
   But to beat the Eagles from Ezell-Harding, the Rangers know they're going to have to soar to new heights.
   Unaka will be facing Class A's top-ranked team Wednesday afternoon in the first round of the TSSAA State Tournament at the Murphy Center. Tip-off is set for 1:30 p.m. Central time.
   "It's going to be a challenge," Unaka sharpshooter Aaron Dugger said. "But there are no bad teams in it. Any draw we would have gotten would have been tough, but it's really tough taking on the No. 1 ranked team in the state. We just hope to go down there and pull a shocker.
   Unaka will be considered by most experts to be the underdog. Ezell comes in with a record of 24-4, while the Rangers enter the game at 25-11.
   But a lot of those losses by the Rangers have come against Class AA and AAA schools, and Unaka head coach Donald Ensor hopes that the tough schedule will have the boys from Stoney Creek ready for this contest.
   "That's the toughest schedule that I could get," Ensor said. "Hopefully, that's why we're where we're at."
   Ensor also hopes playing in tournaments like the Arby's Classic will put away any opening-game jitters.
   "That's why we played in the Arby's, and played in the tournaments we played in," Ensor said. "Our first game of the season was with (Knox) Bearden, and they're down there in the Triple-A. Hopefully, we've played in enough big games already to maybe overcome that aspect of it."
   The Rangers have been one of the hottest teams in the state recently. Unaka has not lost a game in a month now, and looks to be in prime form.
   "We're not going to change anything," Ensor said. "We're going to keep doing what we've been doing."
   One of the things the Rangers have been doing right has been rebounding, and Ensor believes that will be a big key in the contest.
   "Rebounding and running the floor," Ensor said when asked what the keys to the game were. "Transition both ways both offensively and defensively."
   Ensor admitted his players had really been crashing the boards in the postseason.
   "We've really emphasized that," Ensor said. "We're definitely going to have to do that Wednesday."
   The Eagles are led by 6-9 Julian Terrell, guards Erik Davis and J.P Shelly, and also by Antwan Owens.
   You will probably be watching Terrell on television next winter, as he has signed with Vanderbilt.
   "We're really going to have to focus on keeping Terrell off the boards," Dugger said. "And we'll have to keep a hand in Davis' face."
   Unaka senior Dustin Collins also believes keeping the Eagles off the boards will be big in this contest.
   "Making it into the state tournament, there aren't bad teams left," Collins said. "We just have to go out and do the best job we can. Hopefully, we can keep them off the boards. If we can score with them, we have a chance to beat them."
   The Rangers aren't satisfied with just being there, as they're going down to Murfreesboro to win it.
   "They're pretty even-keeled," Ensor said. "It's been pretty much the same attitude all the way through the tournament. You would of expected a huge celebration after the sub-state, but I think they're looking forward to the challenge."
   Dugger is leading the team in scoring with a 27 ppg. average, and was recently honored by a local publication as Upper East Tennessee's "Player-of-the-Year."
   Collins has had a great postseason, as he was the District 1-A Tournament's Most Valuable Player, and Ben Cole is also capable of having a huge scoring night.
   Unaka players Cody Collins, Rusty Chambers and Josh Blevins have also taken their games to new heights in recent weeks.
   "I'm expecting a huge outing out of the whole team," Ensor said. That's what it's going to take. I don't think we're going to have to play a game that we're not capable of playing. That's the good thing about it."
   Collins has been hearing about the Rangers being underdogs, but he's ready to prove the experts wrong.
   "We've heard all that," Collins said. "There are eight teams left, and we're one of them. We've just got to go do what we can do."
   RANGER NOTES:
   * The Rangers are 1-1 against teams in the Class A State Tournament. Unaka has defeated Hancock County, but lost to Tennessee Temple.
   * The Eagles have played a school from our area this year. On Dec. 22, Ezell-Harding defeated Watauga Conference champion Elizabethton 59-49 at Brentwood Academy.