NASHVILLE - There are certain names and faces I immediately identify with specific schools in our area.
I can't drive past Brainerd High and not think of Robert High and Carolyn Jackson, or Howard and not recall Henry Bowles straightening his burgundy sports jacket and turning to address some heckler in the stands second-guessing his coaching style.
The gentleman coach Tom Weathers walking the sideline is still my first image of Red Bank, while I always consider Austin Clark's mix of competitiveness and sportsmanship the best selling point for any of Baylor's athletics. And it's sure good to see Ralph Potter back at McCallie.
But there is one person who, for me, not only is the face of the local school where she coaches but best represents all of Chattanooga's prep sports community.
For 48 years Catherine Neely has molded the lives of teenagers while coaching at East Ridge High School, and tonight she will become the first woman from Tennessee to be inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame.
The only other coach from the Chattanooga area to have been inducted is former Bradley Central girls' basketball coach Jim Smiddy, and Neely will be joined by 11 other inductees in the 30th class during tonight's ceremony at the Gaylord Opryland Resort. She will be joined by former Auburn Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Pat Sullivan, former NBA all-star Kevin Johnson of the Phoenix Suns, who is currently the mayor of Sacramento, and current Iowa State basketball coach Fred Hoiberg, among others.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of her induction is that Neely continues to coach volleyball and serve as her school's athletic director.
Just before Tuesday's news conference, she still was trying to get her mind around the honor she is about to receive.
"It's still so hard for me to believe this is happening," Neely said. "It's such an overwhelming honor. When I walk by and see my picture in front of the display along with all the other inductees, it's just hard to believe. It's a wonderful blessing, and I'm so thankful to everyone who has ever helped me in my career to help make something like this happen."
There isn't a coach in our area who could better represent class and common sense that is too often missing in prep sports today. Neely hates to lose, but she admits she's learned more through the relatively few setbacks she's been handed than the 1,371 career volleyball wins, which ranks third all-time nationally. She also compiled a record of 625-364 in 43 years of coaching the basketball Lady Pioneers.
Her volleyball teams have made 16 state tournament appearances, winning state titles in 1997 and 2005 and finishing second twice. She was the national volleyball coach of the year in 2006 and received the USA Volleyball Lifetime Achievement and Service Award in 2008.
Neely was 21 years old and fresh out of the University of Chattanooga when she began coaching at East Ridge. She's been known to sew dresses for some of her former players and makes it a point to attend their weddings or family funerals in support.
But one example proves she can be tough as nails on her players as well. When one said she didn't think she could run the required sprints because she felt nauseated, Neely's response was to retrieve a garbage can from one corner of the gym, place it near the girl and tell her to use it if she needed to, but to line up and run like everybody else.
That gym is now named in Neely's honor, and she has been inducted into six other halls of fame. But tonight's ceremony is the highest honor for any prep coach or official, and there isn't anyone in town who knows high school sports who would question that she deserves to become the first inductee from the Scenic City.
"Chattanooga has always been a tremendous town for high school sports," said former TSSAA executive director Ronnie Carter, who worked with Neely for more than 30 years. "And Catherine is right up there with the best that's ever been in the business, not just in Chattanooga, but in our state.
"Catherine Neely is East Ridge High School. 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 at every school in the state on how to lead a program."