East Ridge's 'Mama Cat' Neely more than a volleyball coach

East Ridge's 'Mama Cat' Neely more than a volleyball coach

May 13th, 2012 by Stephen Hargis in Sports - Preps

Catherine Neely, 69, has enjoyed a lifelong career teaching and coaching at East Ridge High School for 48 years.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Her success on the volleyball and basketball courts is measurable by the staggering number of wins her teams have compiled. There are so many, in fact, that the gym at East Ridge High School and six halls of fame bear her name.

Her level of success away from the court, including the number of young girls' lives Catherine Neely has impacted and helped grow into confident women, is immeasurable. For those who played for her, Neely isn't just a high school coach. Some even call her "Mama Cat."

"She's always been so much more than a coach," said Sandra Gillian, who played for Neely from 1966 to '68. "For a lot of the kids that play there, she is a mother figure and a role model. She's had kids come to eat dinner and stay at her house, and when I was in school, before our May Day pageant, she made my dress for me.

"She's very genuine -- who you see is who she is -- and she's very disciplined and fair with everybody, and she hasn't changed, even now. I'm 62 now and I don't call her by her first name: I still call her Mrs. Neely. It's been great to see her success, and it makes me feel honored to have been in the foundation of her career."

In a remarkable 48-year career as volleyball coach at East Ridge, Neely has 1,371 match wins, which ranks third all-time nationally. Her volleyball teams have made 16 state tournament appearances, winning TSSAA championships in 1997 and 2005 and finishing second in '88 and '89. She was the national volleyball coach of the year in 2006 and received the USA Volleyball Lifetime Achievement and Service Award in 2008.

She also compiled a record of 625-364 in 43 years of coaching the basketball Lady Pioneers and has served as the school's athletic director for 22 years.

Such numbers are a big reason the school's gym is named in her honor and why Neely will become the first woman 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.

"Now it's a true hall of fame with Catherine Neely in it," said Baylor boys' basketball coach and former athletic director Austin Clark. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for Catherine and what she has accomplished. They couldn't have chosen a better person to be our state's first representative in the National High School Hall of Fame."

Combine the average roster size in basketball and volleyball for the years she has worked, and Neely has coached more than 1,500 players. To truly get a sense of the numberof lives she has affected, imagine that number of young girls who have taken the lessons they learned from Neely and influenced others themselves.

"I've been to every gym in the city and around the state with her," said her son Allen. "Everywhere we would go, she knew people and you could tell from the way they interacted with her that there was a level of respect that not many people have. I know one of my mother's biggest gifts to the girls that played for her were the personal relationships and how instrumental she was in structuring their lives.

"A lot of the girls who played for her still contact her and keep up with her today, so that tells you she was more than just a coach for them."

One former player remembered Neely even through amnesia -- even when she didn't recognize her own family. Lisa White played basketball and volleyball at East Ridge in the late 1980s, earning a basketball scholarship to Middle Tennessee State University, and became the first Lady Pioneers player to have her jersey retired.

Challenged by Coach Neely for her lack of effort during one game, White responded by diving into the stands for a loose ball. White struck her head on the bleachers and was knocked unconscious and taken to a nearby hospital by ambulance. She suffered amnesia that night, unable to remember her phone number or any of her family or friends who visited, including her parents.

"But when Coach walked in the room, I said, 'Hey, Mrs. Neely,'" White said with a laugh. "I was pretty bad off that night and actually stayed in the hospital for a couple of weeks. But I just immediately recognized her. Other than my dad, Mrs. Neely has had the biggest influence on my life.

"She worked really hard to get college coaches to watch my game tape or come see me, and she helped me get a scholarship. She came to my wedding, and when my dad died about a year ago I didn't tell her but somehow she knew and was there at the funeral home the whole time. She's just an amazing person.

"I still get butterflies and nervous when she walks in the room, and I still have to call her Mrs. Neely because of the respect I have for her. When I think about her now, it's not as a coach, it's as a mother or a friend."

Aside from the many girls who played for her, Neely influenced numerous local male coaches as well, including Tom Watson, a 1981 East Ridge graduate who won two state titles as the Lady Pioneers' softball coach and now is an assistant football and softball coach at Baylor. He credits "Mama Cat" with teaching him how to better relate to coaching girls and that the best way to handle teenagers is to always "be firm but fair."

Tim James began his football coaching career at East Ridge, his alma mater, where the stadium is named in honor of another East Ridge coaching legend, his late father Raymond.

"When I was in high school a bunch of us boys would try to sneak into the gym to watch the girls practice and Coach Neely would yell at us, 'Get out of my gym!' As we would run away we would yell back, 'It's not your gym!' But it is her gym now.

"She has put so much into that community, not just the school, and has built one of the premier volleyball programs not only in the state but in the nation. She's a woman of character who has impacted many young ladies' lives and mine as well. After 23 years of coaching, I hope I can be half the coach she is."

While her shadow has reached well outside the Scenic City, Neely's career is rooted deep in Chattanooga. She played basketball and volleyball at Hixson High and softball during the summer as a teenager. After graduating from the University of Chattanooga, she began teaching health and wellness at East Ridge in 1964, before the Braves had moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee and Cassius Clay had changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

She was instrumental in helping TSSAA officials implement Title IX when it was passed 40 years ago. After receiving no pay for the first 10 years of her volleyball coaching career, she helped grow that sport throughout the state and also helped in the transition for girls' basketball from the six-on-six version, with players staying on one side of the court, to the fast-paced style that mirrors the boys' game today.

Twice she was named Hamilton County teacher of the year before retiring from the classroom in 1997. But she continued to use the athletic arena as her classroom, teaching life lessons through sports.

"While I never thought I'd be in it for this long, I never even thought about leaving," Neely said. "I just enjoy what I do. My hobby is watching kids have fun and grow into fine young women and being a part of their families. I never wanted to do anything else. And hopefully I've been a positive influence in their lives."