Everyone in Chattanooga knows about the impact Catherine Neely has had on high school sports over the last five decades. She is about to enter her 50th year as the head volleyball coach at East Ridge High School, but her influence on women's athletics dates back to her time as an undergraduate at the University of Chattanooga in the early 1960s.
Neely is being inducted into the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Athletics Hall of Fame later this month, based on what she did as a student at UTC as much as her 1,381 career wins as a high school volleyball coach.
As a freshman in 1960, Neely came to UC with a passion for athletics and a desire to compete at the highest level available. With no varsity sports open to women at the time, she and a group of female student-athletes competed in intramurals. However, they kept looking for a bigger challenge in a more organized setting.
A decade would go by before women's sports became official at UTC and another 10 years before the Lady Mocs moved from the AIAW to the NCAA. That didn't stop Neely and her peers from pursuing their desire to compete.
"We wanted to play," recalled Coach Neely. "There was nothing...other than you could just play intramurals, so we went to the professors in Physical Education. We asked them if there was anything we could do, and they started getting us set up."
Dr. Warren Averett, Moss Wright and Tommie Yates all helped with the coaching and organizing, while Neely and her teammates became known as a tough group to go against in the region. They played home games in the Old Gymnasium across from Hunter Hall and traveled to other colleges and universities in the area.
"In basketball, we played in the church leagues and the industrial leagues throughout the city," said Neely. "That included Tennessee Temple and the nursing students. We also traveled to the universities that were close. We went to Knoxville and Kingsport, but we didn't actually play UT. There was not a local league in volleyball, but we traveled and played any university that had volleyball."
One of Neely's most vivid memories of her collegiate basketball career involved a game that was never played. On Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, she and her teammates loaded up the bus for a road trip to Johnson City, Tenn.
"We were on the road going to East Tennessee State," she recalled. "When we got there, we found out President Kennedy had been shot. Of course, we had to turn around and come back because they were not going to play the game. That's just tells you how far technology has come."
There were many other road trips, many wins and only a few losses in Neely's career. Unfortunately, there were no records and the few photographs have been lost to history. However, none of that dampens Neely's impact on women's sports at UTC. Her love for competition laid the foundation for all the Lady Mocs that followed.
"From all that I have heard and learned, she got the ball rolling here as far as basketball is concerned," stated current UTC women's basketball head coach Wes Moore. "She has had an unbelievable career coaching high school basketball and volleyball and has always been looked at as a pioneer. She was that way in her time at UTC, trying to get people involved, interested and intrigued enough to pursue having a women's basketball program."
In nearly 50 years of coaching basketball and volleyball in high school, Neely has over 2,000 combined wins. She is also a member of seven Halls of Fame, including the first woman from Tennessee to be inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame in 2012. She is still leaving her indelible mark on the Chattanooga sports community and it all began right here as a Lady Moc.
"I know she comes to most of the games here," added Moore. "She can sit back with a smile on her face, knowing that she is one of the ones that got this thing started."