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E'Jay Ward celebrates Brainerd's boys' basketball win against Christian Academy of Knoxville during a state tournament game last year. Ward was an assistant last season for the Panthers and also played at Brainerd, but now he's the head coach at rival Tyner.

This winter when Tyner's boys' basketball team makes the short trip to Brainerd to renew one of the city's top rivalries, for the first time in his life E'Jay Ward will have to get ready in the visitors' locker room.

Ward, a 2007 Brainerd graduate and Panthers assistant coach the past four years, has been named Tyner's new head coach. He succeeds Keitha Booker, who is moving into administration in the Hamilton County school system.

"I am so excited and can't wait to get started," Ward said. "I probably never thought I would be coaching at Tyner, because my whole career had revolved around Brainerd athletics, but this is an opportunity for me to work with the same type kids and I believe I can help them.

"I'm the type guy that will care about the kids just as much during school hours as when they're in the gym. I want to give the kids a role model they can see right in front of them. They can look at me and understand that you can make it, because I'm from the same neighborhood."

The 27-year old Ward starred collegiately at Tennessee Wesleyan. While working as an assistant at Brainerd, helped the Panthers reach the state tournament three times, advancing to the Class AA title game two seasons ago.

"They're getting an awesome person and very hard worker who's dedicated to making kids better," said Brainerd coach Levar Brown. "We're going to miss him, but I'm extremely proud and happy for him. I consider him family. They couldn't get a better person for that job.

"We've joked about it for the last few days, about how it's going to be fun and will just make the rivalry better."

Ward's older brother Tyrus recently returned to their alma mater to take over the Brainerd football program.

"I'm living a dream because I'm getting the chance to take over a program that is already so established," E'Jay Ward added. "I am grateful to Coach Brown for giving me a chance to learn and grow as a coach, and now I just want to build on what the great coaches at Tyner have done before me.

"I don't think I've ever even been to the Brainerd visitors' locker room. That'll be weird, but I can't wait."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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