Rangers edge CAK for first state berth

By Ivan Sanders

   Elvis may no longer be in Memphis, but one thing is for sure -- the Unaka Rangers will be there participating in this year's TSSAA's Spring Fling, the first trip ever for the Rangers to state baseball competition.
   The deal was done on Friday evening at Claude Holsclaw Field, as the Rangers ran out to a 4-0 lead against the Christian Academy of Knoxville Warriors and then fought for their dear lives in taking a 5-4 win in eight innings on graduation night at Unaka.
   "Holy Cow....WOW!" stated Unaka Ranger coach Mike Ensor after being drenched with ice cold water by his players. "That was a great job by these kids here because they never say die -- they just battle their guts out."
   Unaka, with their horse Randy Swearingen on the mound, jumped out like a streak of lightning to start the game. Tee Blevins reached on an error by the third baseman and advanced to second on a throwing error by CAK's second baseman.
   Ranger junior second baseman Rusty Chambers clobbered a Will Burkhart pitch to the fence in right-center for a RBI double. Catcher Brent Huskins picked Chambers up with a single to give Unaka a 2-0 edge after one complete inning.
   For five innings, the Warriors struggled against Unaka's Swearingen as the southpaw pitcher allowed the Warriors only four hits in the stretch, while recording nine of the 15 outs with strikeouts. The Ranger batters, meanwhile, kept ringing up hits to record two more runs to push their advantage to 4-0.
   In the third, Chad Lewis ripped a double and advanced to third on a passed ball. After a Chambers walk, Burkhart unleashed a wild pitch that sent Lewis scrambling for the plate.
   Catcher Daniel Edmunds retrieved the ball in advance of Lewis arrival at the plate, but Edmunds toss to Burkhart was wide for an error that allowed Lewis to safely touch the dish.
   The Rangers manufactured its fourth run in the bottom of the fourth inning. Cody Collins spanked a single into left field to open the frame. Center fielder Thomas Guess followed Collins up with another single to place runners at first and second.
   Blevins was in the mix again as Ensor was looking to place his runners in scoring position and called upon Blevins for a sacrifice bunt. Blevins laid down a perfect bunt down the third base line and beat the relay to first for an infield single that loaded the bases.
   Taylor Yoakley replaced Burkhart on the hill and Yoakley followed in Burkhart's steps by unfurling a wild pitch to allow Collins to scamper home for run number four.
   Unaka appeared to be in the driver's seat, until the top of the sixth inning when Swearingen lost his focus after being pinched on several close pitches in walking two straight batters after a Ben Parrish single.
   With the bases loaded, CAK scored a run on an Edmunds RBI single. Unaka appeared close to getting out of the inning after a Nat Durant infield fly out to Chambers, but Hank Fennell followed up the out with a big two-run single to pull the Warriors within 4-3.
   Warrior first baseman Scott Arendt tied the game as the lanky player laced a RBI single to bring CAK even at 4-4. Unaka, which started off the game with a bang, now found themselves struggling against sophomore pitcher Yoakley, who had pitched seven innings against Rockwood on Wednesday.
   Unaka managed to get Collins to second in the bottom the sixth after he drew a walk and Guess reached on an error by the shortstop, but the Warriors hunkered down to hold the Rangers at bay and go to the seventh and final inning of regulation all even.
   CAK appeared poised to take their first lead in the top of the seventh after a Ryan Cooper single and a base on balls to Parrish. Unaka catcher Huskins appeared confused as he saw Cooper heading to second on the walk and threw the ball to an empty bag at second to allow both runners an additional base with no one out.
   Swearingen showed why he is one of the toughest lefties in all of Northeast Tennessee, as the young man struck out clean-up hitter Peter Hall and Burkhart to give the Rangers an opportunity to escape the inning unscathed. Edmunds then hit a blistering shot to shortstop Lewis who cleanly gloved the ball and took his time in throwing a strike to Chris Arnold at first to kill the Warriors rally.
   Said Ensor: "I thought about taking Randy out, but I just looked over to Coach Dorsey and I said that he was the horse we rode all year and we're either going to ride him to Memphis or we're going to ride him to the house, but we are going to ride him. Randy was getting tired, but he just bowed his neck to ride it through."
   After CAK held Unaka to nil in the bottom of the seventh, the huge crowd of spectators got some free baseball as the game went to the eighth.
   Fennell managed to sandwich a single between two more Swearingen strikeouts before Yoakley hit a fly ball out to Collins in left field. The stage was now set for the climatic bottom of the eighth inning for Unaka.
   After a Daniel McInturff fly out, Collins worked Yoakley for a walk. Guess tore the cover off Yoakley's first pitch down the first base line that allowed Collins to scoot over to third base.
   The spotlight was now on freshman Blevins, with many anticipating a possible squeeze attempt for the win. CAK's coach Steven Gum called time to talk with Yoakley, while Ensor paid a visit to his freshman third baseman.
   Stated Ensor: "I walked down there to the batter's box when CAK's coach called time and I looked at him and said, 'Freshman, what do you think about being a hero right here?' Tee just smiled at me."
   Blevins took the first pitch for a strike before lining the next pitch up the middle for a hit and the game winner as Collins scored to set off mass pandemonium for the Ranger players and fans.
   "I just wanted to put the bat on the ball," said Blevins. "He threw me a fastball and I just drove it."
   It was graduation night for lone senior Chris Arnold, but that didn't bother him that he was still in his game jersey and on the diamond instead of in the gymnasium.
   "I've been waiting for this moment since I was a freshman because coming in some of the other guys didn't know what it was like to be in a sectional, but I've been through one and I was ready to go," stated an excited Arnold. "I'd rather be down here than up in the gym at graduation."
   CAK's Gum was disappointed at the loss, but was proud of the way his team responded in the contest.
   "We weren't disciplined because we swung at several high pitches," said Gum. "We had a good scouting report from different teams on Unaka's pitcher and felt like we could hit well off him because we threw our lefty in practice yesterday in getting prepared for him, but we just weren't disciplined enough."
   Unaka will now travel to Memphis on Monday morning as the state group 1-A begins on Tuesday with the championship scheduled for Friday at 5 p.m.
   Note: With the Spring Fling's move to Memphis this year, the expenses will be quite challenging for the Rangers, who weren't prepared for the long trip. The Unaka High School Home Run Club will be taking donations from individuals and local businesses that would like to help the Rangers in the travels to Memphis. Donors can call Henry of Cynthia Ensor at 423-474-3666 if they would like to make a donation.