Remembering the 2004 State Champs Unaka Rangers, a celebration set for Jan 23 at Unaka High

Published 9:00 am Monday, January 22, 2024

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BY C.Y. Peters

In the winter of 2004, the community of Stoney Creek in Carter County was set ablaze with the fervor of high school basketball.

The TSSAA state basketball tournament became the stage for the Rangers’ triumphant march. Three consecutive days saw the Unaka boys taking the floor, their determination and skill leaving an indelible mark on the hearts of their fans. The memories of those games still lingered in the minds of Stoney Creekers, like cherished keepsakes from a bygone era.

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One enduring memory was the resourcefulness of Captain Rusty Chambers. As the Captains met at center court,  Chambers used the referee’s shoulder to fix his shoe. It was a quirky moment that exemplified the camaraderie and spirit of the Rangers.

The coaching staff, a formidable assembly of basketball legends, included Donald Ensor, Johnny Ensor, Larry Bowling, Richard Thomas, and Mark Revis. Four out of the five were Unaka basketball standouts in their own time, bringing a wealth of experience and passion to the team.

As the tournament progressed, so did the swelling tide of fans from Stoney Creek. Each day, the stadium filled with more and more supporters, eager to witness the magic the Rangers were conjuring on the court. The halftime show, featuring Unaka fan Thomas Guess sinking three-pointers, became a spectacle that added to the electric atmosphere.

The students, bedecked in school colors, showcased their unwavering support for the Rangers. Among them was little Benji Butler, perched on the steps, eyes wide with admiration as his father, Eddie, made his way to the press room after each victorious game.

The on-court dominance of Rusty Holsclaw and Josh Jones left an indelible mark on the opponents, especially Temple, some of whom probably still felt the bruises. The trio of Derek Cline, Cody Collins, and Tyler McCann, heroes of the nail-biting game against Franklin, etched their names in Ranger lore with McCann’s last-second shot that propelled them forward.

McCann’s stellar performance earned him the MVP Award, a fitting recognition for his contributions to the team. The victory against Temple had Coach Ensor raising his fist triumphantly, and Mike Ensor standing outside the arena with his arm lifted, signaling victory – a number one sign of impending glory.

In the championship game, with only 13 seconds left and a commanding 14-point lead, the brothers Donald and Johnny Ensor shared a heartfelt hug. It was a moment of realization – they were state champions. The euphoria in the locker room was palpable, especially when Donald Ensor embraced his father’s neck, a culmination of years of hard work and dedication.

The crowning glory came in the form of the gold ball, handed to Pam Espinoza, who passed it through the stands. Larry Bowling, with his number one finger raised to the sky in the team photo, symbolized the team’s ascent to the pinnacle of success.

Yet, the most iconic image was Big John’s expression when handed the golden ball. It was a mix of pride, joy, and perhaps a touch of disbelief – a moment frozen in time.

For Stoney Creek and Carter County, this victory marked the end of a three-decade-long wait for a state title. The winter of 2004 would forever be etched in their memories as a time when the Unaka Rangers, against all odds, emerged triumphant, bringing unparalleled joy and pride to their community.  On January 23 Principal Mike Ensor will host the 2004 Champs at the Cosby game, everyone remembers the Cosby game of 2004.