East Ridge High School will help Catherine Neely celebrate her 50th year as the school's volleyball coach on Sept. 19. The public is invited, especially former East Ridge players, parents and all local coaches. A presentation will take place between the junior varsity match and the varsity match against Central, which is scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m. A reception is planned for after the match. Those unable to attend but wanting to send well-wishes are asked to mail them to assistant coach Diana Brock, 623 Pine Brow Trail, Chattanooga, TN 37421.
In 1964, the Beatles made their American television debut with a live performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." That same year, Catherine Neely made her debut as head volleyball coach at East Ridge High School.
The famous rock group managed to stay together for about six years. Neely is still going strong in her 50th year on the Lady Pioneers' bench.
That's actually where the coach will be today, inside the gymnasium named in her honor, when East Ridge takes on Sale Creek in a match at 5:30 p.m. And on Sept. 19 the school will pay tribute to Neely's half-century of service with a presentation before a match against Central and a reception afterward.
Diana Brock and East Ridge softball coach Sandy Mauser are helping coordinate the event. Brock played for Neely and has been her assistant coach the last 23 years.
"We've had a lot of great times throughout the years," Brock said. "We've had a lot of strategy sessions late night and plenty of good times and laughs. We've had our moments, too, but we'd get through it. She does a tremendous job."
Neely has guided two teams to state championships and is Tennessee's all-time winningest high school volleyball coach, ranking third nationally. Among her many honors, she was inducted into the National Federation of High Schools Hall of Fame last year.
She also was East Ridge's girls' basketball coach for 43 years and has been the school's athletic director for more than two decades. She also has worked as a district and regional coordinator for the TSSAA since it created its program to include those positions.
"Catherine has meant so much to the state of Tennessee, especially to female sports," TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress said. "Not only is she in the TSSAA Hall of Fame, she was recently recognized by the NFHS in their Hall of Fame. Not too many people have that distinguished honor for their years of service to young people. We're just proud to have her, and she continues to do a fantastic job."
Neely was hired straight out of the University of Chattanooga, where she played volleyball and basketball. As a volleyball coach she has witnessed several modifications, most notably the introduction of the libero position in 1998 and the use of rally scoring starting in 2003.
"Volleyball has really changed over the years," Neely said. "I've had to study right along with it as I've coached it. It's a pretty game now. It's beautiful, the power and skill they have now, but I think the finesse has come back. It's a specialty sport, but a lot of girls can play a lot of positions."
Lisa Davis, who is in her first year as volleyball coach at Silverdale Baptist Academy, was a senior on Neely's 1988 state-runner-up team. Her jersey No. 44 was the first to be retired by the program.
"From at my wedding to at my dad's funeral, she has always been there for me," said Davis, whose mother, Lisa White, was on Neely's first volleyball team. "By far she's one of the most precious people I know. She's a mentor and a role model. I was in seventh grade and clumsy and goofy when I was approached about playing. The whole game was taught to me by Catherine Neely."
Current East Ridge seniors Michelle Hughes and Ieashia Taylor said they consider Neely a coach, friend and mother figure.
"She's taught me a lot," Hughes said. "If it wasn't for Coach Neely, I wouldn't be the player I am today."
Taylor also plays basketball and would like to stay involved in either or both sports for years to come.
"I want to coach," Taylor said. "She's inspired me to do that."
In 50 years we've come from color TV being something new in American households to people watching digitally enhanced programming on big screens. The Beatles have given way to DJs entertaining today's youth with their electronic freeform music.
But even though times have changed, Neely still is able to relate to teenagers. Of her current players she said, "They unnerve me sometimes," but there's no other place she'd rather be than with them.
"I just can't seem to let it go," Neely said. "Leaving will probably be one of the hardest decisions I ever make. I just enjoy being around the kids. I hate to think about not being around them anymore."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at email@example.com or 423-757-6653. Follow him at twitter.com/KelleySmiddie.