Unaka coaches no strangers to state

Photo by Dave Boyd
Donald Ensor has participated in the state tournament as both player and coach.

By Tim Chambers

   Three Unaka coaches know what it feels like preparing for the big show. Head coach Donald Ensor along with assistant coaches Richard Thomas and Johnny Ensor have state tournament experience as both players and coaches.
   Coach Donald Ensor was a member of the '84-85 Rangers that made the school's first trip ever to the state tournament.
   This team was special, one with sure heart and determination. Not one player stood over 5-11, yet Unaka went toe to toe with Jo Byrns, who happened to be a very good basketball team.
   The game was played at Memorial Gymnasium, home of the Vanderbilt Commodores. A good number of fans made the trip to Nashville hoping to see the Rangers prevail.
   Unaka jumped on top 12-6 but the Red Devils came back to take a 23-20 lead at halftime.
   Byrns led by nine but three buckets from freshman Chris Grindstaff cut the lead to two with 4:16 remaining. The Red Devils tried to pull away but Unaka refused to quit thanks to the outstanding play of Donald Ensor, who tossed in 16 points for the game.
   Trailing only 39-35 with 1:48 remaining, missed free throws and two turnovers allowed Jo Byrns a hard fought win.
   Coach Ronnie Snavely stated how proud he was of this group of young men and how they had set the bar for Unaka basketball.
   With only two seniors, Ensor and Dwayne Taylor, Ranger basketball was on its way up. They finished at 19-14 on the season. After going 13-13 during the regular season, they reeled off six straight wins.
   Richard Thomas was a freshman on a varsity team that's makeup included four juniors, one sophomore and three freshmen. The future looked bright for Stoney Creek fans.
   Three years passed before Unaka earned a second trip back to the big dance. The '87-88 team featured current assistant coaches Johnny Ensor and Thomas.
   After defeating Chattanooga Christian 60-46 in sub-state action, Unaka headed to Nashville to take on the Dresden Lions. All the stood in the way for Unaka was a Popeye, one who had absorbed his fair amount of spinach.
   Popeye Jones, currently a member of the Golden State Warriors, created matchup problems for Unaka. His 23 points led the Lions to a 70-60 win.
   Taking advantage of some cold shooting, Dresden opened up a 35-15 lead at one stage in the game. Yet the same trademark now applied then -- that you never quit regardless of how many points you're down.
   The lead was cut to 44-30 at the end of three. An amazing comeback sliced the margin to five at 61-56 with 1:30 remaining. Unaka's comeback efforts fell short as Dresden escaped with a 10-point win.
   Dresden's coach praised Unaka's efforts, saying they played their tails off the entire game. Thomas burned the nets for 22 points to lead Unaka. His counterpart, Johnny Ensor, accounted for some key buckets and did a great job running the team.
   Unaka fell short to Ezell Harding 54-42. The Eagles had trouble at the foul line, shooting 13-of-33 to allow Unaka to hang close.
   The Rangers trailed 47-42 with 4:00 remaining but could never get any closer. Aaron Dugger accounted for 24 points while Ben Cole added 11. The other seven would be split between three sophomores: Rusty Chambers, Cody Collins, and Josh Jones.
   Collins did a good job at running the team, and hit a key three in the third period. Jones logged 18 minutes of playing time that day.
   After hitting his first shot of the game, Chambers shot 0-for-5 for the rest of the contest. He played only 11 seconds in the second half. His five turnovers were a nightmare. After the game a dejected Chambers stated: "I only wish that we had one more game so I could redeem myself."
   Yet in every state tournament appearance, Unaka's hustle and efforts were applauded. Not one time did they quit. Quitting is just not Ranger basketball. And the coaches know what it takes as a player and coach to get there.
   Almost two years have passed for Chambers, Collins and Jones. For these three seniors, this is the last dance. Not everyone gets the opportunity at the high school level to compete in two state tournaments. Yet for this trio of players, it's their second chance at the big show. A chance at redemption.