At the start of the season Prairie Ridge volleyball coach Stefanie Otto’s job required more than just instruction – she needed to sell her vision.
Otto wanted to run a 6-2 offense to capitalize on her roster’s talent, but some players were hesitant to embrace the nontraditional system. The 6-2, which utilizes two setters, is a rarity at the high school level. Not only does a program require versatile players to run the offense, but as coach, Otto needed to find the perfect combination between her setters and hitters.
Getting her team, especially the seniors, to buy into the system was half the battle. However, Otto knew that if the Wolves did, the possibilities were endless for a team that finished under .500 a year ago.
“You have to convince kids – and I respect the fact that [running a typical 5-1 system] is what they want to do and I let them know that – but you have to understand that we have to do what’s best for this team,” Otto said. “These kids, they are skilled in their own ways pretty evenly. They all have something they do well, and so I think everybody felt they were equally contributing to this team.”
Otto’s foresight paid off. The Wolves captured their first Fox Valley Conference division title since 2009, finishing 11-1 to share the Valley title with Crystal Lake South, and came within one win of their first appearance at state since 2005.
For her efforts, Otto is the Northwest Herald’s Volleyball Coach of the Year, selected by the sports staff with input from area coaches. Richmond-Burton’s Kaycee Kaywood and Crystal Lake South’s Jorie Fontana were also considered for the honor.
“It took a little while, to be honest,” senior outside hitter Caitlin Brauneis said of adjusting to a 6-2 offense. “At the beginning we all wanted to do what we wanted to do, of course, being seniors, and then she just told us, ‘This is what’s best for the team. This is what’s going to get us far.’ And I knew that’s what we had to do and that’s what we had to do throughout the season.”
The challenges Otto faced extended beyond managing a complex offense and working around injuries. In a unique situation, Otto’s daughter, Taylor, a junior, started for the Wolves as one of their setter/outside hitters. While Taylor played last season on varsity, she became a full-time starter this year.
“I knew she wasn’t going to baby me, she wasn’t going to treat me like a daughter,” Taylor Otto said. “She was going to treat me like a player and so at first I had to get use to that. … For sure she’s hard on me, but that makes me better. It’s hard to get used to but it fits for me and the team and her.”
Stefanie Otto found a solution to erase the mother-daughter distinction on the volleyball court – a decision that sent a message to Taylor’s teammates that there would be no preferential treatment.
“We set the tone that I’m not your mom and I remember her calling me mom one day in the gym,” Otto recalled. “I told her there’s no mothers here. I said you can call me coach and that’s who I am. She got it. Even though I pre-warned her, it’s still hard for her to separate that, and I think she has matured in that and understands that I am her coach. We don’t really talk a lot about volleyball at home. We try to leave it in the gym.”
“I think the team got across that it wasn’t the case just because she’s really hard on me,” Taylor Otto added. “We’ve had to run a couple times because of me. I think it reassured the team that everything is fair.”
After 16 seasons as the Wolves’ coach, boasting a 469-148 record, Otto’s passion for the game remains strong. Although known for her intensity, Otto admitted she has definitely calmed “a lot” since she started.
“I’m a nitpicker,” Otto said. “I pick on things that drive them crazy I’m sure. I focus on a lot of details as far as getting things done. Communication is big for me and effort, hustle is huge. I hate laziness and you gain a lot of respect from me for how hard you work. I think building good relationships with the kids and building that trust has to come first.”
Even though the expectations are always set high, the respect Otto commands from her players hasn’t changed over the years no matter how hard she pushes to get the best out of her team.
“She loves all the girls and truly makes a special connection with every girl and makes a point to do that,” Brauneis said. “I’m really proud that I got to play four years for her.”