Lead evaporates, season comes to end for Rangers

By Wes Holtsclaw

   MEMPHIS -- The Unaka Rangers were playing to stay in the mix of things Wednesday.
   Holding a lead throughout the majority of the contest, the Rangers simply fell apart in the fifth inning of their TSSAA Class 1-A state tourney matchup against Jackson Christian School.
   Five errors and seven runs later, the maroon machine couldn't get back and fell in its bid for a state championship with a 9-4 loss to the Eagles at the Giarosa Field at Christian Brothers High School.
   "I told the kids it doesn't matter where you go out, it's always tough," said Unaka coach Mike Ensor. "It's a lot easier in the state tournament. There are a ton of teams that haven't had this opportunity.
   "Only four teams will win their last ballgame," he said. "This year, we're not one of them."
   Despite the loss, Ensor knows his young squad has the potential to return to the Bluff City in 2004.
   "We've got to go out and battle next season," he said. "If these guys go to work, we may be back here next year. But it's up to them."
   Unaka opened up with a Thomas Guess single into left field and a big shot down the third-base line from Tee Blevins. Blevins stole second, setting up a Chad Lewis walk.
   Rusty Chambers walked in Guess, and Brent Huskins was hit by a pitch, scoring Blevins. A Chris Arnold walk and a Ryan Bowers single put Unaka up 4-0 to start the game.
   Randy Swearingen was solid from the mound early, only allowing one hit (by Robert Matlock) in his first three innings.
   Jackson Christian got on board in the fourth inning after Chad Harris and Gary Cadigan walked. Lee Manney sacrificed Harris before a wild pitch gave Cadigan the leeway to score and cut Unaka's lead in half.
   Jackson Christian replaced pitcher Michael Page with Andrew Smith, who was also impressive, in the second inning.
   The Rangers had a hard time getting anything going offensively throughout the remainder of the game against Smith, as Chambers, Swearingen, Cody Collins and Guess picked up hits, only to remain on the bases.
   While Unaka failed, the opposition began to pick things back up.
   With two outs in the fifth inning, four errors, a double from Harris and a single from Cadigan helped the Eagles bat around their lineup for a seven-run frame and 9-4 lead over the Rangers.
   Unaka simply couldn't battle back, falling after working so hard in the contest. The Rangers outhit JCS 9-4, but one inning cost the squad.
   "We came down and played hard," said Chambers, who led the Rangers with a 2-for-3 outing. "It seems like every time we get ahead with a lot of pressure, we lose it. But if we play hard and don't take anything for granted, we can make it back next year."
   Collins and Guess both added two hits apiece for the Rangers, while Matlock led the Eagles with two hits.
   "This year was nothing but success," Ensor added. "We lost one senior, Chris Arnold, and Thomas (Guess) got caught in a change-over and his application for hardship was denied, and he was just hit by it."
   "During the first game when we went in the park, my jaw didn't drop until the game was over," said Chris Arnold after the game. "But we came down here to win and I'm proud of the team this year."
   Guess was expecting to play his senior season, but his hardship application for missing a semester was turned down by the TSSAA.
   It was very sad to see his high school career cut short although he could've been eligible for another year of play.
   "I'm just glad to be down here," Guess said. "This was a great team and we were like a big family. It's just hard because I've got another year of school and I can't play ball.
   "I thought we had a chance to win both games. We just beat ourselves and made a lot of errors. There were a lot of good teams down here."
   All in all it was a good season and a good experience for the Rangers, who got a lot of support in Carter County.
   "We want to thank everybody at home who gave us money to get down here," Ensor said. "If it weren't for them, we wouldn't be down here."