E'Jay Ward's 28th birthday was Sunday, and he wanted only one present. His Tyner basketball team delivered it to him Tuesday.
Ward, who played in high school at Brainerd and in college at Tennessee Wesleyan, made his high school head coaching debut at Hixson with the Rams, and they defeated the Wildcats 80-44. That not only left them 1-0 but also 1-0 in District 6-AA.
"It felt great," the former point guard said. "I was nervous a little before the game but I'm thankful for the opportunity. It's something I've dreamed about since I was a little boy watching my brother, Tyrus, play at Brainerd High School. I couldn't wait for this day to happen."
Tyrus is currently the head football coach at Brainerd and has some experience in the past coaching basketball. But the younger Ward has a better winning percentage thanks to a deeper Rams team that ultimately overwhelmed a younger Wildcats team.
"It's basketball," Hixson coach Lawanza Crutcher said. "You have to rise to the occasion. We knew a little about them, based off history. The way he played, we knew it was going to be a fast-paced game. We actually were prepared for that. We just didn't execute the way we were supposed to."
Tyner started by scoring the first seven points, prompting a quick timeout by Crutcher two minutes into the game. And although Hixson (0-3, 0-1) scored coming out of the timeout, the Rams added an 8-0 run for a 13-point lead.
Ward's first substitution came when he called time out at the 3:03 mark and sent five new players into the game. He also made a four-player substitution around a similar time in the second quarter.
"We're also still looking at everybody," said Ward, who saw eight of his players score in the first quarter, which ended with Tyner leading 23-12, and four of them made 3-point goals. "I saw some good things off the bench. In practice we've been beating up on each other, so we've been looking forward to this. We were hungry to play another team."
When the Rams led 52-25, it was their largest margin at the time. But the Wildcats were back within 19 points late in the third quarter and were within 20 early in the fourth when Tyner went on a run of 18 consecutive points to make it 76-38 and easily put it away.
"We didn't calm down when we were shooting the ball," Crutcher said. "We were chucking the ball at the basket. Give credit to Tyner. They were aggressive when they were coming at us. But it doesn't matter how fast they come out. We've got to learn to use pump fakes and get somebody to fly by, instead of just throwing it to the basket."
Fifteen Rams played and all scored. They were led by Javon Craddock's 15 points, as he provided five of their 10 3s. Amon Grace and Jaylend Lattimore had nine points apiece.
Hixson got 19 points from Reuben Snow and 13 from Terry Moorer.
Contact Kelley Smiddie at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6653. Follow him on Twitter @KelleySmiddie.