One of a Kind: Neely celebrates 50 years at East Ridge - WSMV Channel 4

One of a Kind: Neely celebrates 50 years at East Ridge

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Photo Courtesy: Chattanooga Times Free Press Photo Courtesy: Chattanooga Times Free Press

EAST RIDGE, Tenn. (WRCB) -- A glance through her morning paper a few weeks ago led to a revelation for Catherine Neely.

A story in the Chattanooga Times Free Press chronicled the long-time East Ridge coach's career and detailed the school's upcoming plans to celebrate it.

Neely had heard a bit about the tribute, but it's purpose hadn't fully registered until she read one surprising statistic: This is her 50th season as the Lady Pioneers' volleyball coach.

"I just never thought about how long I'd been here and whether people wanted me to be here or not be here," a humble Neely said after Thursday night's match with Chattanooga Central. "I just never thought about it, but it sure hit me then."

Neely has never been one to put too much emphasis on numbers. In fact, when asked her team's record this season, she simply shrugged and said she'd lost count. However, the banners in the rafters and a trophy case filled with gleaming gold hardware make it easy to figure out she's won far more than she's lost.

While she has never paid much attention to exactly how long she's been on the East Ridge sidelines, there was one moment a few decades ago when it dawned on her she was building a history with the program.

"I had a parent meeting and the whole room of them had gone to school here or played here for me," Neely said with a smile. "That was the most fun parent meeting, just to see all the generations come back and realize I was starting to coach the children of some of my former players."

Thursday night, dozens of them returned to the gym named in Neely's honor to celebrate her half-century of excellence.

"It's not surprising to me (that she's coached for 50 years) because she's such a strong lady and she's a great coach," said Bonnie Lewis, who played for Neely and graduated in the Class of 1993. "I wouldn't be the person I am today if she hadn't been a part of my life. There's no other coach I'd rather have."

Neely was presented with flowers and a piece of the floor from the original East Ridge gymnasium where she started her career as a 21-year-old in 1963 (which was five years after the school officially opened its doors).

"She's just a rock," said former player Connie Maxwell, who graduated in the Class of 1973. "You can call her and she'll be the same tomorrow as she was 20 years ago when it comes to offering advice and help.

"She's just the best."

Neely has never wavered in her passion for athletics and belief in the positive role they can play in a young woman's life. She has watched the rise of high school girls' sports over the years, especially basketball, and has been an instrumental force behind it.

"She used to drive us to Jackson in a van every year for the state basketball tournament, which was the girls' half-court game back then. Those were some of the greatest times I've ever had," said Maxwell, who played both basketball and volleyball for Neely. "She used to drive us everywhere to play in tournaments and attend camps, now she hosts tournaments and camps right here because of how much she has helped the sports grow."

Neely has piled up more than 2,000 combined wins between her stints as volleyball and basketball coach for the Lady Pioneers, and enjoyed a successful run as the school's athletic director, as well.

She is a member of seven difference halls of fame, including the National High School Hall of Fame, which inducted her last summer.

"We just tried our best to make these girls productive, mature young ladies," Neely said. "That was just always my goal in life."

It's certainly been a life well-spent, but that doesn't mean her career is spent just yet.

Neely is routinely asked to choose a favorite moment from her career, but has always balked at the question.

There is not a single win, loss, play or moment that stands out to her. Instead, she cherishes five decades worth of relationships and life events. Each one as impactful and memorable as the next, with plenty more still to come.

"I really did shed a few tears when I read that story in the paper because it was just hard to believe they were talking about me," Neely said. "Every single moment has been my favorite moment. It was every day that I was able to be here and be around young women and hopefully see them some day became very productive citizens.

"I wouldn't take a million dollars for it."

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