Unaka gunning for berth in state final

By Tim Chambers

   If members of the Unaka coaching staff ever decide to give up basketball, they might want to try their hand at a job in Las Vegas.
   This season the coaches took a big risk playing a monster schedule that included the likes of Science Hill and Tennessee High among other heavyweights, and many questioned as to why they would play such teams.
   To top that off, only 10 games were played at home. Of those other 26 games away from the friendly confines of Snavely Gymnasium, one of those included a road trip to Chattanooga to take on two-time defending state champion Tennessee Temple.
   While the record wasn't pretty early in the season, fans now realize the Ranger coaching staff theory.
   In the Temple game Unaka trailed by 17 late in the third quarter, but used a trapping full-court press that forced the Crusaders into numerous turnovers. The result was Unaka taking a one-point lead with two minutes remaining in the contest.
   But the Ranger comeback would fall short as Temple would cash in on numerous foul shots down the stretch, which left many Ranger fans shaking their heads after the contest.
   Coach Donald Ensor had no comment. He had witnessed what he had wanted to see.
   The Rangers were coming of age. And more importantly, they had given Temple everything they wanted and then some. Ensor knew he might be playing Temple again later this season. After all, who should know better than the riverboat gambler himself.
   Unaka (23-13) plays Temple (25-10) today in what is considered the biggest basketball game ever played by a Ranger team. All that stands between Unaka and the state championship game are the Crusaders.
   You won't find two coaches who respect one another more than Ensor and Coach Dan Wadley. Wadley is one of the finest head coaches in the state and his record speaks for itself.
   After losing two all-state players from last year's squad, the Crusaders find themselves back in familiar stomping grounds. Temple doesn't hope to be playing in Murfreesboro this time of year, they expect it.
   But for Wadley, the respect is mutual respect for Coach Ensor and his program. They have played each other the past three seasons. Each team eats together after the games. It's a great rivalry, one that all the players look forward too every year.
   But the stakes are higher this time around. Each coach knows what the other likes to do. Tennessee Temple has been in the situation many times. But the Ranger players are not fazed with the Temple success.
   They have all stated they have one thing in mind -- the gold ball and nothing else.
   Rusty Chambers, Cody Collins and Josh Jones have talked about this day for many years, since their elementary playing days at Hunter. In three season as varsity starters, Chambers and Collins went 68-6. The last season with Jones as the center, they finished 21-0, the first step to where they are now.
   Temple is led by 6-2 wing Caleb Skogan and his 5-11 counterpart Sean Wadley. Both are juniors but have been on both state championship teams. Temple wouldn't be Temple without a player named Skogan or Wadley.
   Last year's star, Jake Skogan, was a key player at Division One school Mercer while Ryan Wadley was the starting point guard for Tennessee Temple University.
   Zack Mouw (6-2 junior) is a solid post player. Dee Newson (5-7 freshman) has future division one star abilities. Throw in Wadley's coaching ability and Temple is tough as ever.
   But so are these Rangers. Chambers and Collins are winners. You won't find division one teams lined up beating their doors down, but no two players have ever had as much team success as this duo. Two state tournaments in basketball and one trip in baseball says it all.
   Chambers is well over 1,600 points in his career. Cody Collins is one of the best defensive players to ever wear the maroon.
   Derek Cline and Rusty Holtsclaw are getting better every time they take the floor. Cline is lighting quick and is beginning to find his stroke as an outside shooter.
   The emergence of Tyler McCann has been a key down the stretch. McCann is athletic and is beginning to play with confidence. Holtsclaw is a raging bull inside the paint, while Jones has a nice shooting touch from 15-feet in.
   Josh Lowe, Chase Reeves and Tee Blevins will be counted on too give key minutes.
   It will take a total team effort to advance to the championship game, but Unaka's team is willing to do whatever it takes to get there. In the game verses FRA, Unaka attempted only six shots in the second half against the much bigger group of Panthers.
   They shot 14 of 26 from the field and 10 of 12 from the foul line. Chambers, the leading scorer who was held to four points on 2 of 3 shooting, said it best: "Heck, I don't care if we win 5-4, I just want to win that championship." This seems to be the mindset of all the players.
   'Our kids are focused," said Ensor. "They know what is at stake and are ready for the task. This is a special group of young men. They realize you don't get this opportunity too often. I know they will give it their all."
   Not many gave the Rangers a chance to be here. Many questioned if they were the better team in the conference. Few would have been willing to bet on the Ranger getting this far except for Ensor and his staff.
   After all, they are the riverboat gamblers.