On the Red Line! 50-Years ago, Unaka Baby Rangers were Kings of the Courts

Published 11:41 am Thursday, December 29, 2022

By C.Y. Peters
     It was nearing October 1, 1972, and basketball season was coming soon.  That was the official first day of practice and we were all eager to hit the court.  The Unaka Baby Rangers, as we were known back in those days.  A baby in a Ranger in uniform was painted on the scorer’s box that sits high above the gym over-top of the entrance to the green and white bleachers.  I’m not sure why the gym and the poles were all painted green because our colors were red and white.  It would be November before we would get our uniforms, some were white with red stars down the side with a belt, and our away jerseys were bright red.
     Norman White, who had been coaching basketball since before I entered the first grade, was a highly respected teacher and ball coach.
Not sure when he came to Unaka, but he had some District and Regional tournaments back in the 1960s.  Coach White always talked about his $80.00 baseball gloves that he had in a closet in this room, which to us were all worn out.  We thought he used them when he was in high school.
At the time, I didn’t know what a baseball star he was because he was a shorter man, overweight to us, and seemed old.  Later researching old newspapers, I learned that White was a star pitcher for the Rangers.
In one game, he threw a no-hitter against Unicoi and a one-hitter against Elizabethton.  He won his first five games on the mound, and was labeled Unaka’s best pitcher as a Sophomore.  I didn’t care much about his teaching because on many weekends, I was subtracting three from 3000.  I loved him as a basketball coach, I had played for him since entering the fourth grade.  Ronnie Hicks, who had been our B-team coach, was White’s assistant, John Bell Lewis helped out, and I remember Hunter Bowers coming by to throw in some help.
     It was our final season of basketball at Unaka; most of us were eighth graders.  We knew we would have a good team, we were undefeated when we were in the sixth grade and last year, we won the seventh-grade tournament held at Central Elementary.  We had two big boys, Glenn Morriss and Mike Nave.  Perry Rambo and Noel Branch were the wings, and Alan Ensor and I alternated playing time.  I was a point guard and Alan was a post player. Our subs were Bryan Smith, Randy Richardson, Mike Russell, Bill Jones and a fifth-grader name Mickey Taylor.  Mickey played as much as anybody on the team, we would beat many teams badly, so our second five got to see a lot of playing time.
     We knew it was going to be a tough season, Keenburg had a very tall player in Ernie Morrell, and he had led the Tigers in scoring as a seventh grader.  They also had a Davis boy that transferred in, and younger boys were Carpenter and Marc Campbell, who I believe was a fifth or sixth grader, but started on the varsity team. Ensor’s Tigers had won the Regional the year before with players like Charlie Sluder, Frank and Wes Perry and Rick Younce. Midway was always tough to beat at their place and they had four or five boys that could play.  Players like Donnie Blevins, Dale Williams, Ed Holder and Steve Estep.  We knew Midway and Keenburg would be our toughest competition.  They had great coaches, Daniel Holder was at Midway, and Richard Ensor was at Keenburg and both of them had recently won Regional Championships.  Siam could be tough as well as Valley Forge; Siam had Tim Heaton, a Miller and a Montgomery boy that could fill up the net.  The Eagles had Tim Chambers, who could dominate a game.
     Before the season started, it was two-and-a-half-hour practices right after school and sometimes three hours.  It was a month before we would play our first game and we would scrimmage, work on defense, the press, and offense, but mostly we ran.  Coach White’s world-famous saying was “On the red line.”   We ran death valleys, up and down the gym, for what seemed like hours.   Then he would say the first one back can sit down. If we messed up on a play, we had to run. If someone said something Coach White didn’t like, we had to run. By November, we were in shape and ready to play.
     The season started as projected; Midway, Keenburg and Unaka were beating teams by 30 to 50 points.   Big Ernie was making noise putting up 35 and 40 points a game for Keenburg, while Williams and Blevins had led Midway to a 5-0 start.  Our only loss of the season would come at Midway, a 34-32 final as Estep scored falling out of bounds for the win.  We would slip into second while the Tigers and Rebels stood alone at the top.  It was a heartbreaking loss, and White thought we weren’t in shape enough. Guess what, we run.  A week later, Midway would beat Keenburg and it was a big surprise to us, but helped us gain confidence, for we were sure we would beat Midway at our place.
     We traveled to Tiger stadium or sometimes known as the crackerbox in the small gym at Keenburg.  We were down 44-39 with 46 seconds left, looked like we would end up in third place.  White called time out, and told Noel Branch and Perry Rambo to press hard, we needed the ball.  With Big Ernie down the court,  the smaller Keenburg guards could not get the ball across half-court and we came back and won the game 46-44.
     Keenburg would beat Midway at Keenburg, we would beat them at Unaka and then we beat Keenburg at our place.  We are in command of the season now.  Chambers at Valley Forge did us a big favor by beating Keenburg.  We went on to win the Conference, District, and Regional titles.  When our season ended, we were 30-1.
For our accomplishment, Coach White, Assistant Coach Hicks and John Lewis took us to Nashville to see the high school State tournament.  It was a great time, a wonderful season, and holy cow, it was fifty years ago.

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