Rangers dig deep for district crown

By Wes Holtsclaw

SPORTS CORRESPONDENT

   After Friday night's performance in the District 1-A baseball tournament, the Unaka Rangers could only be described by EMF's early 1990's hit, "Unbelievable!"
   Being forced to play in the losers bracket to open up the evening, the Rangers had to win three straight games to take the District 1-A championship.
   They did it in an impressive eight-hour stretch, beating the North Greene Huskies 7-2 in the opening round, spanking University High 14-7 to force a final championship game, and finally sinking the ship of the Jr. Bucs with a tight 3-2 victory to take the title.
   "We lost a tough game to UH (Wednesday) -- a game I felt like we had a good shot to win," said Unaka coach Mike Ensor. "We didn't get as many hits as they did, but we had nine line-drive outs. We were disappointed to lose that game, but I told the kids that if we beat North Greene we're in the regional, then we can relax and play -- which is what we did.
   "After that first win, we really relaxed."
   Both teams opened the second game with fatigued looks. Rusty Chambers and Drew Harrell set the pace as the pitchers in the final showdown, which went down to the last out.
   Unaka came out strong scoring two runs in the second inning, after a Chambers score and a Ben Cole RBI single.
   University High was in a tight spot, unable to score through five innings, when it bounced back for a tough sixth inning.
   Tyler Blevins and Daniel Smith both had RBI singles in the sixth inning, which tied the game at 2-all going into the final frame.
   Cole stepped to the mound for the second time on the day, and pitched a good seventh inning, backed by defense that stalled the Jr. Buc movement.
   Thomas Guess would be the man. Guess made his way around the bases with two outs at the bottom of the seventh, attempting to steal third. A wild throw was made from the catcher, which allowed Guess to score the winning run, taking the final game at 3-2.
   Harrell finished the game with eight strikeouts and one walk, while Chambers stung four and walked two for Unaka.
   The district championship was Ensor's fourth in his four years as Unaka coach, and distinguished his seniors in an outstanding way.
   "I'm pretty pleased," he said. "This is something nobody can ever take away from these seniors. They've won every district tournament they've played in, which is a real big accomplishment."
   The Rangers, who host Washburn in the regional tournament at Joe O'Brien Field Monday night (7:30), have possibly jelled at just the right time.
   Of course, the Rangers had to wait for the school's basketball season, which extended well into March, to finish before they really got started. Then Unaka (20-21) faced a thick schedule.
   "We had to play our way through a lot of mistakes, but maybe we are starting to come together at the end of the year," Ensor said. "We've got some young kids really stepping up."
   Unaka 14
   University High 7
   The second game of the day could've been all of it for Unaka, but instead the Rangers dealt University High a 'Rock Bottom' with a 14-7 invasion.
   The game was big early for Unaka, which opened the game as the visiting team and immediately dropped some scores. Ryan Bowers walked in Chambers for the first run of the game, leading up to a two RBI single from Chris Arnold.
   Unaka shut down the Jr. Bucs on their first defensive effort, and continued the scoring fashion with a Chambers RBI single for Dugger, a Jeremy McCann bag on a balk, and a Chad Lewis RBI single for Chambers. Unaka led 6-0 in the second, but the Jr. Bucs never gave up.
   University High opened with two big plays from Alex Graves and Toby Hoyle, setting up a Josh Fields RBI single, a two-run single from Daniel Smith, and an RBI fielder's choice from Paul Williams, closing it at 6-4.
   In the third inning, Unaka stroked the ball more times than you could find peanuts in a Cracker Jack box. Chris Arnold, Daniel McInturff, David Perry, Jeremy McCann and Cole all swung their way around for scores.
   Unaka responded again in the fourth inning with a two RBI single from Aaron Dugger, making the score 13-4 Unaka.
   University High scored three runs in the fourth behind an RBI single from
   Smith and a two-run single from Paul Williams, closing the gap at 13-7. Lewis scored Chambers on an RBI sacrifice fly in the sixth to put the game away.
   McInturff was the winning pitcher, handing Unaka a shot at the title.
   Unaka 7
   North Greene 2
   Ben Cole got a big pitching win in the first game with a seven-strikout performance, holding North Greene to only two first-inning runs as Unaka clobbered them 7-2 in the early game.
   "Ben Cole did a good job," said Ensor. "And when you've got a kid that's been there for four years and went after it like that, you give it to him. He went out and threw a heck of a ball game, hit it good. What more can you say, they all busted their tails off out here."
   Dugger and Chambers got bags in the first inning for Unaka after Dugger stole home and Chambers took the base on a passed ball, making it 2-0 Unaka.
   North Greene bounced back with two runs off of hits from Justin Evans, Josh Gibson and Blair Platt. The game remained scoreless until the fifth, when the Rangers started breaking out.
   In the fifth inning, Unaka was lead by singles from Dugger and Jeremy McCann, and a Cole double to add two more runs to the board. North Greene committed two errors in the sixth inning for two Unaka scores, and a Cole single for Chambers ended the game at 7-2 for the Rangers.