ABOUT THE WINNER
Years at school: 48; since that time she has won 1,371 volleyball matches, which ranks third nationally, and won 625 basketball games during 43 years of coaching that sport.
Quotes about the finalist: "Catherine Neely is East Ridge High School. There have been some great people through the history of that place, but she epitomizes that school and that community. She is a role model not just for the girls that play for her but for every coach in every sport on how to lead a program."
- Former TSSAA executive director Ronnie Carter
She began collecting porcelain doll more than 30 years ago and now has more than 300 dolls. She has a room dedicated to storing and displaying them.
Few Hamilton County educators have touched more lives than Catherine Neely. For 48 years Neely has worked with East Ridge High School students, always striving to be more than a teacher and coach.
"I've had families where I taught or coached the mother and later the daughters and that's always special," Neely said. "I've just always enjoyed what I do. I've tapered off through the years as far as how involved I am, but I still enjoy being at the school and helping kids learn and grow. That's part of your job as a teacher and coach, to mold the lives of the kids you're around and I always took that responsibility to heart.
"And hopefully I've been a positive influence on their lives."
A graduate of Hixson High and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Neely is nominated for the Excellence in Education Distinguished Alumni Award. She taught health and wellness for 33 years at East Ridge and was honored as the Hamilton County Teacher of the Year twice before retiring from the classroom.
She continued coaching girls' basketball for another 10 years before stepping down from that sport, but continues to coach the Lady Pioneers' volleyball team and has served as the school's athletic director for more than 20 years. The gym at East Ridge High also bears her name.
"When I first got here on campus, one of the first people I met was Coach Neely," East Ridge principal Zac Brown said. "Her commitment to the school is obvious because she's still here as much as full-time employee. I figured out from watching her, that she takes those kids in and has them in her heart. And they all love her.
"It's amazing when you see someone who has that much influence over young people. She teaches them how to be young ladies and how to be successful in life. It's not about wins and losses with her, it's about impacting lives."
Earlier this year Neely was informed that she will become the first woman from Tennessee to be inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame. She is among 12 individuals in this year's class, and will become only the seventh person and fifth coach from Tennessee to be inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame during a July 11 ceremony at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center in Nashville. The only other coach from the Chattanooga area to have been inducted is former Bradley Central girls' basketball coach Jim Smiddy.
"This is the pinnacle for any high school coach. It's certainly the biggest honor I have ever received," Neely said.
Neely has won 1,371 volleyball matches, which ranks third all-time nationally, and also compiled a record of 625-364 in her 43 years as head basketball coach. Her volleyball teams have made 16 state tournament appearances, winning two state championships (1997, 2005) and finishing twice as runner-up (1988, 1989). Her record also includes 17 district championships and 16 region championships. Her basketball teams won eight district titles and made 28 region-tournament appearances.
Neely has been inducted into five other sports halls of fame: Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (1993), National High School Coaches (1996), Greater Chattanooga Sports (1996), Tennessee Sports (2000) and Hixson High School (2004). She was the National Federation of State High School Associations national volleyball coach of the year in 2006 and received the USA Volleyball Lifetime Achievement and Service Award in 2008.
Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@ timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293.