2004 TSSAA State Champions – Unaka Rangers

Published 11:26 pm Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Wanda Townsend talks about it every time I see her and Henry Wayne Ensor still has a smile on his face.
To be a state champ you must have a lot of skill and “Lady Luck” has to be on your side. So many times I see teams who are suppose to win the gold ball but are stopped short.
Not because they weren’t good enough, just because on that day Lady Luck wasn’t with them. For the 2004 Unaka Rangers, Coach Donald Ensor had Lady Luck sealed in his pocket.
Life is full of what if’s – as for the 20004 team what if Derek Cline had of missed the free throw that beat Cloudland with no time left on the clock and what if Rusty Chambers doesn’t pull up and hit a three against Cosby with only seconds left and what if Franklin Road Academy covers Tyler McCann on the final shot of the first round of the state tournament in Murfreesboro.
Life changes in split seconds and in three games what seemed to be a split second the Unaka Rangers were crowded 2004 State Basketball Kings.
The road to success is very tough and it takes a lot of hard work to become great and Coach Ensor had a winning strategy.
He played the best teams, he didn’t have the best record in the state but he had his boys prepared for the biggest games of their lives.  He had faith in them and they believed in him.
Ensor scheduled Tennessee High, Daniel Boone and Science Hill. Three of the biggest teams in the area.
March 20th would become a day no Ranger fan would ever forget. It was a victory for every player who ever played for the maroon and white, wore a Ranger uniform or sit in the stands and cheered them on.
Not since Charlie Bayless in 1974 when he took the Happy Valley Warriors to the big game had any team won a state tournament basketball championship for Carter County.
The Rangers pulled through the District with Cline’s free throw for a win and a top spot in the Regional.
The Regional was held at Hancock County and that’s who the Rangers would meet in the final game.
In the opener they made little work of J.Frank White winning 72-26. University High had beat Washburn and that would be the Rangers next game where they pulled out a 73-71 win.
In region two, Rockwood and Cosby would battle to the final game with Unaka playing the loser and Hancock would have to travel to Rockwood for the sub-state.
The Rangers beat Hancock and would get to play a home game against Cosby. The gym was packed, the sidelines were packed and the crowd was ready for one of the most exciting games ever to be played at Snavely Gym.
No one ever held a big lead and the game see-sawed back and forth until it looked like Cosby was state bound. With just over five minutes left to go in the game, they had built a ten-point lead.
Coach Ensor called a time out for the last chance to pull his team together. I don’t have a clue what he said but in less than a minute and a half, the Rangers had exploded for ten points and with 3:28 left to play the game was tied at 50.
For the next three minutes, it would be a defensive game. Both teams would only score one basket each in the final 3:26 seconds.
With time running out, Rusty Chambers drove to the up-the-creek side of the gym and nailed a 35-footer that seemed to be a half-court shot and it hung in the air for seconds before falling through the net, twinkling the twine, for a three-point 55-52 lead with 1.3 seconds left in the game.
The gym erupted, the bleachers were shaking and the crowd was roaring. It was almost impossible for the constables and county law to hold the fans off the court.
A quick Cosby time-out resulted in what would be the longest 1.3 seconds in Ranger history.
Ronnie was hugging Marilyn Taylor, Danny Ray Eggers was jumping up and down, Wanda Townsend was hitting everybody on the back, and J.R. Campbell had a big smile on his face.
Radio announcer John Holsclaw had almost lost his voice while high five’s amongst fans were everywhere – they were leaning over each other ready to storm the floor. Then when the horn sounded, the celebration began.
Thousands followed Unaka to Murfreesboro and with each win, the crowds got bigger.
The opening game was against Franklin Road Academy. The Panthers quickly jumped out to a 13-8 lead behind the shooting of their two top players, Kyle King and Lucas Foley.
Derek Cline would start the second quarter off with a three-pointer, Cody Collins would steal the inbound pass for a lay-up and just like that the score was tied at 13.
Cline gave the Rangers a one-point lead with another trey and they would not trail again until the final shot of the third when Foley hit a jumper to put FRA up 33-32 to end the third.
Foley opened the fourth with a basket for a 35-32 lead, Rusty Holtsclaw knotted the game with a jumper and a free throw.  FRA would tie the score at 39 with .57 seconds left and the Rangers would control the ball until taking a timeout with 14 seconds to play.
Collins took the ball in and worked from side to side before finding McCann open who hit a 10-foot jump shot for the win.
Ensor knew Temple well – he had played them in years past and knew their coaching staff. He had to jump on them early and never let up and that he did.
Like a trail boss on a long drive, Ensor stayed on his boys and pushed them to give everything they had and then some. The Rangers would keep pounding the ball to the big men inside – Holtsclaw and Josh Jones.
The Rangers would score 32 points in the paint and shoot 100 percent from the free-throw line making 13 for 13. When the final horn sounded Unaka was on top 52-46 and moving on to the title game.
The final game would be against the Grace Golden Eagles who had escaped with a one-point win over CPA. The Rangers could smell the gold ball.
Big John Taylor was rubbing his hands, his dreams of a state championship was near. Unaka wasted no time in putting away the Eagles.
“That whole year was different starting with the early fall workouts as everyone’s mindset and competitiveness went from like 80% to 200%,”
said MVP Tyler McCann. “Everyone could tell that something special was going to happen.
“The coaching staff challenged us early and often with the conditioning, practices and the schedule we played. But it was weird because we as players, we were craving it.
“We wanted the toughest teams, the grittiest practices…all of it,” McCann continued. “When we got to the state tournament, we knew nothing that we were going to see was going to be bigger of a challenge of what we’ve already faced.
“And for that, we came out the victor and accomplished something amazing. I love those coaches. I love that team. It seems like the older I get, the more I think about it and hold it dear to my heart.”
McCann went on saying, “If we could get past the first game then the pressure would be off because no Unaka team had made it past that first quarterfinal game.”
“When he hit the shot at the buzzer I just had a gut feeling it was going to be our time,” stated teammate Derek Cline.
The hard work and tough scheduling had paid off.  Cody Collins would lead Unaka with 18, McCann would follow with 16 and Chambers would score 13 as Unaka led 33-18 at the half.
Grace would make a run but could only get within six and Unaka pulled away for a 63-47 win.
Chambers and Collins were selected All-Tournament while McCann was named MVP. What this team did for school spirit on the Creek was unbelievable and to get a state MVP was something only five other men had done in Carter County since the beginning of the TSSAA back in the 1920’s.
They gave the school, the former players in every sport and their fans something to brag about for eternity.

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