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Staff file photo / Catherine Neely, at 69, poses for a photo in the East Ridge High School gym. Neely enjoyed a lifelong career teaching and coaching at East Ridge for 48 years.

Updated with more information at 7:45 p.m. on Nov. 19, 2020.

The numbers alone are astounding. During her remarkable 50-year career, Catherine Neely compiled a list of athletic accomplishments that were applauded and envied across the nation.

But that wasn't what kept Neely energized to continue coaching for five decades. The numbers she truly cared about were the lives she could touch as a mentor to the teenage girls who played basketball and volleyball for her at East Ridge High School.

Those numbers had reached more than 2,000 by the time Neely retired six years ago, and they are multiplied when you consider how many of those girls took the lessons they learned from "Mama Cat" and paid it forward in their own lives as mothers, educators and even coaches themselves.

Besides her immediate family, it was that extended family — those former players — who were hit hardest by the news that Neely had died in the early morning hours Wednesday after a lengthy bout with COVID-19. She was 78.

"I think a lot of us have been in shock ever since we heard the news," said Jessica Cook, a 2003 East Ridge graduate who played basketball, softball and volleyball for Neely. "You just never believed that we could lose her. Coach Neely seemed to transcend time, so you didn't think there would be a point where we would be without her.

"The first thing you think of is just her competitive nature and passion for the sports she coached. She wanted to win every time out and inspired all of us who played for her to have that same mentality. As I get older, I think about how the lessons she taught us — about succeeding through effort and hard work — are things that stay with you with whatever you're doing in life."

Cook is but one of the 72 players who earned all-state recognition under Neely in either basketball or volleyball, and she's also part of a large collection of Lady Pioneers who went on to play at the collegiate level.

Upon her retirement in 2014, Neely said: "Not many people get to do something they love, and at the same place, for 50 years, so I feel blessed. 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."

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Staff file photo / East Ridge volleyball coach Catherine Neely talks to her players on the sideline during a home match against Central on Sept. 19, 2013. A reception celebrating Neely's 50th year coaching volleyball at East Ridge was held after the match.

If numbers alone had been important to Neely, she certainly would not have coached without pay for the first 10 years of her career, as she did before the volleyball staff began receiving a stipend.

It is fitting that the nickname for the school's athletic teams is Pioneers, because in many ways that is what Neely was throughout her career. Only 21 years old, and fresh out of the University of Chattanooga when she began coaching at East Ridge in 1964, she was instrumental in helping Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association officials implement Title IX when it was passed 48 years ago, helping grow girls' sports — particularly basketball and volleyball — not only throughout Chattanooga but across the state.

"I'm sure lots of folks will look at her list of accomplishments, but those of us who knew her best will always talk about the person she was first," former TSSAA executive director Ronnie Carter said. "When you look at her impact on basketball, volleyball and as an administrator, it's just unreal all that she did to contribute to so many lives.

"Catherine was first class in everything she did, just one of the great ones that we've ever had as a coach and mentor and someone who truly cared about her community. What a tremendous loss. Particularly for the Chattanooga area, but really for high school athletics in our entire state."

Neely's death comes just one week after the passing of Clifford Kirk, another local prep coaching legend and hall of famer. Kirk won more than 1,300 games and 10 state softball titles in a career that spanned 30-plus years at Hixson, Soddy-Daisy and Sale Creek.

In 2012, Neely became the first female in Tennessee to be inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame and is a member of six other halls of fame, including those for the TSSAA, Tennessee State and Greater Chattanooga Sports.

Twice she was named Hamilton County teacher of the year before retiring from the classroom in 1997.

Her volleyball teams won 1,395 matches, which ranks third all-time nationally, and made 17 appearances at the state tournament, winning championships in 1997 and 2005 and finishing runner-up in 1988 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 626-354 overall record as basketball coach for the Lady Pioneers, winning eight district championships and making 28 region tournament appearances. For more than 20 years, she was the school's athletic director, and the gym is rightfully named in her honor.

"Catherine is East Ridge High School," former principal Ed Foster said. "She had her hands on so many more things in the school than just athletics and was such a mentor to so many in life in general.

"I've never seen anyone who was more thorough and more in charge with whatever she was a part of. I have so much respect for her and her body of work. She will be greatly missed by all who were fortunate enough to know her."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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