Record doesn't show it, but Rangers make improvement

By Marvin Birchfield

STAR CORRESPONDENT
mbirchfield@starhq.com

   It was another downtrodden season for the Unaka Rangers in football as they endured a second consecutive one-win year, but to say things did not get any better would probably be way off-base.
   "Wins and losses didn't go like we had hoped, but we did get better and were competitive in several games," said Unaka coach Mike Ensor.
   Unaka's record didn't change, but its production on offense did with junior Joey Parlier gaining 1,100 rushing yards on the season, including seven 100-yard games.
   Last year there was only a couple of times that a Ranger back was able to clip the 100-yard mark, and no one was close to gaining a 1,000 yards.
   "We did get better with moving the ball, and Joey had over 1,100 yards, which was something we hadn't had in a long time," said Ensor.
   Parlier was challenged by his coach after the first game for a lack of effort, but from that point on Joey stepped up and ran the ball really hard.
   Tory Morton and Cody Hurley were two other backs to add assistance in the backfield.
   Hurley shinned in the late-season game against Hampton with an 88-yard kickoff return for a score, and Morton was stable throughout the entire year.
   Probably Unaka's most explosive back on the year was freshman Charles Guinn.
   Guinn was very seldomly used in the backfield, but there was no doubt he would add a spark to the offense after his 56-yard touchdown run in the first game of the season at Claiborne County.
   Even though the Rangers improved on driving the field, the inconsistency of hanging onto the ball plagued them all year.
   "The one thing we didn't do well was taking care of the football, but that is something that we will take time to improve on," said Ensor.
   The only Ranger senior this season was quarterback Jeremy Cook, who missed the last two games due to an MCL injury to his knee.
   Cook's departure affected Unaka as far as his leadership role and ability to throw the ball downfield.
   Brandon Irick was called on to step in, but after concentrating on the tailback position most of the year, then showing a lack of arm strength, Irick had little impact for the Ranger offensive at QB.
   "We need someone to step up and play quarterback for us next season, and right now it's up in the air whether Irick or somebody else with come in for us," said Ensor
   When Unaka did convert on the pass, it was many times to 6-5 tight-end Josh Jones.
   Jones was a big target across the middle, along with wideout Kevin Covarubias, who had the only Unaka touchdown reception on the season.
   The kicking game for the Rangers was not that much of a factor, but on the other hand it did what it was asked of.
   Brent Huskins was both place-kicker an punter, and even though he rarely attempted the PAT he was solid with his punts.
   One thing that Huskins did was not allowing teams to do is return the ball on kickoffs. He might have kicked the ball out of bounds all the time, but Unaka didn't have to worry about a touchdown being returned.
   A big problem that Unaka did encounter was the fact of having a weak line up front.
   There was little resistance to stopping its opponents on defense, and at times the offense became stagnant.
   A lack of dedication in the weight room showed, as Unaka often had trouble in blowing people off the line.
   "The one thing we are going to have to improve on is our strength. We are going to have to get bigger and better up front to where people are not manhandling us," said Ensor.
   When the Rangers did break through the line, they frequently missed several opportunities of making the tackle.
   A play which looked to be a loss of yards often turned into a big play for their opponents.
   This was somewhat due to injuries, as Jeremy Cook and Andrew Richardson sat out several games, along with others who were banged up.
   "Injuries were a part of our problems in the late season, but it did make our younger kids step in and have to play," said Ensor.
   But the lack of strength up front was most critical with teams being able to run through arm tackles.
   Strength is definitely a key issue the Rangers will have to contend with next year if they want to turn their program around.
   The Rangers were fairly well in the secondary, and although several touchdowns were scored against them, they were seldom caught out of position.
   Hurley and Irick defended the corners, while Guinn made several saving tackles along with a couple of interceptions.
   "He was able to run Mark Byrd down from behind and make a saving tackle, and he also made some tackles in the open field, which not many others were able to do so," said Ensor of Guinn.
   The highlight of the Unaka season was its homecoming victory against Cosby in a 34-12 final.
   This gave Unaka an opportunity to make it to the postseason, but a disappointing effort against North Greene denied the Rangers their chances at the playoffs.
   There has been a lot of controversy about Unaka's decision in dropping a couple of local teams from the schedule next year.
   But with the desire to rebuild their program and once they have become competitive again, look for Unaka to up its schedule in years to come.
   Ensor is dedicated in turning the program around and will try to accomplish the same results in football that he has already done with the baseball team.
   "We expect to step it up next season," Ensor said. "We have nearly everybody coming back, and we should have a great group of upper classmen with 16 or 17 seniors."