Bahamas trip boon to Unaka program

By Wes Holtsclaw

STAR CORRESPONDENT
wholtsclaw@starhq.com

   They went, they played, they came back appreciative.
   Late last month, the Unaka Ranger basketball team competed in the Fourth Annual Thanksgiving Classic, sponsored by Basil and Paula Neymour as well as Coca-Cola, at the Jack Hayward Gym in Freeport on the Grand Bahamas island.
   "It's absolutely one of the best things I've been involved with," said Unaka head coach Donald Ensor. "The tournament, the people, everything -- the competition, it was good."
   The Rangers were invited to the tournament last year shortly after their appearance in the Arby's Classic. They made the venture with Tennessee High and Volunteer's basketball squads, coming away with a great experience.
   It was a memorable experience for Coach Ensor.
   "Todd Whittemore -- who coaches at Volunteer -- really enlightened me on what it meant for our families," Ensor said. "I've coached here for 10 years, this is something that would've never happened if we hadn't been involved in basketball.
   "I know it's something I probably wouldn't have done, and I'm sure it's the same thing for some of the players."
   Perhaps the most credit for the support of the trip goes to the Unaka High School boosters, who helped fund the trip.
   "I've got to thank the boosters," Ensor said. "They were absolutely amazing through the whole thing. They are a small group and made some sacrifices to allow these kids to do that for free.
   "It was unbelievable how it all came together, and it helped our team. We played against unbelievable athletes, who don't play like we do. They are the friendliest people I've every been around in my life, they could kill you with kindness."
   When you think of the Bahamas, you think of fun in the sun. But for the Unaka basketball team, there was a lot more to the trip, especially for the coach.
   "It was interesting," said Ensor, "My time was tied up. I did a one-hour radio call in show, which was mostly callers from the United States. I thought that was neat."
   "I did a live TV thing, and did stuff we weren't accustomed to doing. That and coaching in shorts," he joked.
   "There was three meals and the game," Ensor said. "Everything was laid back- they had free time down there, but not what they expected. Transportation was difficult until we learned the system.
   "We brought a lot of people with us. We had 87 people as fans, and had to turn some away. It took us one hour and 20 minutes to get to Freeport nonstop on the plane. We got back on Sunday, and it took us longer to get to Eidson for a conference game on Monday than it did to get to the Bahamas."
   It was a good treat for the fans from Northeast Tennessee who went down.
   "These are three teams that don't have a lot in common," Ensor said referring to Tennessee High and Volunteer. "All of the fans would get together and cheer for their home teams."
   The atmosphere was much different in Freeport, as the gymnasium was a packed house during the tournament.
   "It was loud," Ensor said. "The music, everything. They love basketball. They've got all-around fan support, and they appreciate good play."
   Unaka's team was well-represented, and invited back for next year's showcase.
   "Everybody that went represented us well, they were impressed with how enthused our fans were," Ensor said. "It was overwhelming in a good way. We got invited back, which is something I'm sure the parents and boosters don't want to hear, but I'd like to go back with an experienced team."
   It meant a lot to the Unaka players who participated in the experience.
   "It was a tough tournament," said Rusty Chambers, who made the all-tournament team. "There were no slouches down there, either. We came in with a chance to win, and in some games the third and fourth quarters killed us."
   The Rangers finished 2-3 in the tournament, with victories over the Eight Mile Rock High Bluejays and the Sunland Lutheran Stingers.
   "It was a lot of fun," said Cody Collins. "We played well, and they've got some good players. The people there like to watch the game and are real friendly."
   "It was a lot of competition," said Josh Jones. "We only won two games; could've done better, but we learned a lot from it."
   If the players could do it again, they would go back in a heartbeat.
   "I'd love it," added Chambers. "Whenever we came back, it helped us out. I appreciate the experience."
   "It was an awesome, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Jones said. "I was glad to be a part of it; it was all nice."
   Said Ensor: "It was a great cultural experience for the student athletes here to leave this country and go into another country and play. I hope it shows them what it means there, I know I sure do."