Central’s Lady Pounders rallied from an 0-2 deficit and stormed to a 3-2 District 6-AA volleyball win on Thursday, a night when East Ridge honored Catherine Neely for her 50 years of coaching in a gym bearing her name.
Central (21-11, 2-2) lost the first two games to the inspired Lady Pioneers 25-13 and 25-22 and East Ridge was in position to sweep the match on Neely’s special night.
However, the Lady Pioneers forgot to finish off the Lady Pounders. Central pounded East Ridge 25-9 and followed that up with 25-19 and 15-8 wins to wrap up the victory.
“Our girls want to make it exciting,” Central coach Robin Moore said. “They’re going to give me a heart attack.”
As well as anyone in the gym, Moore still knew the night belonged to Neely, a six-time Hall of Famer who began coaching at age 21 and 71 on Sept. 25.
“My mentor is Catherine Neely,” Moore said. “I played for coach Neely in the 1970s. Everything I know I learned from her. Even though we coach against each other now, she still helps me. She’s an unbelievable woman.”
That’s what Neely said her entire career has been – unbelievable.
Neely has 1,390 wins, which rank her third nationally, according to the National Federation of High Schools website. She has won about 70 percent of her matches over half a century.
But not Thursday’s.
“It’s not over when you win two games,” Neely said. “Lesson learned. Central changed their strategy and we didn’t react.”
After Neely huddled with her team following the match – it was East Ridge’s first loss in four district matchups – many of her players were crying.
“This hurts really bad,” senior Michelle Hughes said. “I wish we had pulled it out for her. She told us to remember how good the first two games felt and remember how bad the last three felt. Then she said, ‘I’m still proud of you.’ ”
Neely, a former Hixson High and University of Chattanooga student-athlete, has been inducted into six Halls of Fame – TSSAA (1993), Chattanooga Sports (1996), National High School Coaches Association (1996), Tennessee Sports (2000), Hixson High (2004) and National High School (2012).
She was named the national coach of the year in 2006 and was nominated for the award in 1982 and 1989. She has been named female coach of the year in District 3 (1999) and athletic director of the year in District 3 (2004). Neely has been selected the Chattanooga are volleyball coach of the year 15 times.
Neely was selected TSSAA State Volleyball Coach of the Year in 2005 and the Tennessee Athletic Coaches Association Coach of the Year 15 times.
In volleyball – she also coached girls basketball at East Ridge – Neely has appeared in 16 state tournaments and captured championships in 1997 and 2005. The Lady Pioneers finished second in 1988 and 1989. They won 17 district titles and 16 region championships and her basketball teams appeared in 28 region tournaments.
Neely had first teaching/coach job lined up before graduating from UC as a 21-year-old. Betty Robinson, then the East Ridge coach, transferred to another school and Neely had an in with the East Ridge principal.
“I student-taught for his wife at City High,” she said before Thursday’s match. “She knew Betty was leaving East Ridge and she told me to go interview. I did and got the job shortly before I graduated prior to the 1964-65 school year began.
“That’s what I wanted to do; that’s what I always dreamed about.”
She continued to play sports for the first 10 years of her coaching career. There comes a point, she recalled, when you have to stop playing and get down to business.
“I was young,” Neely said. “I was learning. I was asking questions of anybody I talked with. I was reading about the sport. I was going to clinics and trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing.”
Over the years Neely got out of the learning business and went into mentoring players who turned into coaches and referees and life-long friends.
“I don’t have any girls on this team whose mothers I coached,” she said, “but there has been a bunch of them.”
Some of those former players were in attendance when Neely was honored with flowers and a plaque prior to the match against Central.
While the years have become a bit fuzzy, she recalled her best volleyball record being 52-6.
“Or something like that,” she said.
She estimates her losses somewhere in the 600s, adding she would have to go back and count them up. Neely said she wouldn’t know about all the wins unless people had told her to keep track of them.
Once hired, Neely coached volleyball and basketball for 43 straight years, before choosing to drop her hoops duties seven years ago.
She “just knew it was time” to give up one of them.
Neely spent most of Thursday receiving congratulations of students and faculty members and several former opposing coaches were on hand at the match to wish her well. And don’t forget all the cards, letters and e-mails.
A coach of Neely's stature who has been around 50 years impacts a lot of lives and earns the respect of many more.
Moore was unabashed in her praise for Neely.
“I wouldn’t be where I’m at if not for her,” said Moore, crying as she spoke.
While Neely might not be a taskmaster like Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, there is a stern side to the veteran Lady Pioneers coach.
“It’s fun to play for her, but there are days when (players) say, ‘Oh, no, she’s not happy.’ She can be pretty tough. If you screw up, you better be ready to get on the line. She’s going to run you from one end of the court to the other.”
Neely said it will be a difficult to give up coaching volleyball, but knows the day is coming.
She will know when it’s time.
“I won’t make that decision until after this season,” she said. “It has been nice and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I didn’t set out to do all this and I’m in awe of everything. Behind all these things I’ve been honored for are a bunch of girls that have made this happen. They bought into whatever we’ve had at East Ridge.”
The Lady Pioneers came out on fire in taking the first two sets on Thursday.
The fact that Central fell behind early fits with a trend the Lady Pounders have established over the last couple weeks, Moore said.
“And then they come out ready to play,” the coach said.
Between the second and third sets, Moore didn’t chew out her players. Instead, she tried to inspire them.
“Basically, I told them we’re a much better team than this,” she said. “If you make a mistake, shake it off. So they kicked it in in the third game and started to play some volleyball.”
Central, which didn’t get a lead until going up 19-18 in the second set, jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the third, stretched it to 18-4 and then cruised home to extend the match.
In the fourth, East Ridge led 7-6, but Central 19-14 advantage and wrapped up the set on an unforced error by the Lady Pioneers.
In the final set, Central built an 8-3 lead and outscored East Ridge, 7-5, down the stretch to ice the victory.
“I’ve told our girls several times that if we’re struggling, don’t get down,” Moore said.
When the match ended, the Lady Pounders were on an emotional high.
Central’s assistant coach Don Brock, picked up the stat sheets, looked over at the East Ridge team huddle after the match and shook his head, showing some emotion of his own at having beaten East Ridge on Neely’s big night.
“(Neely) wouldn’t have liked it if we hadn’t tried to beat them,” he said.
Tiffani Estep – 19 kills, 7 digs, 2 aces
Rebekah Hill – 15 kills, 17 digs
Skyler Wolfe – 11 kills, 2 aces.
Lexie Ainslie – 28 assists, 6 digs
Samantha Scott – 26 digs, 3 aces
Chasidy Ainslie – 16 assists, 8 digs
Hailey East – 8 digs, 2 blocks
Hannah Eldridge – 24 digs, 12 kills
Kyhonna Lawrence – 28 assists, 12 digs
Michelle Hughes – 4 kills, 4 blocks
Ieashia Taylor – 20 digs, 1 block
Tamara Sandridge – 10 digs.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)