Girls volleyball: Prairie Ridge coach Stefanie Otto steps down after 27 seasons

Otto has been Wolves’ only coach since school opened in 1997

Prairie Ridge coach Stefanie Otto reacts to the change of an out of bounds call in the third game of the Class 3A Woodstock North Sectional finals volleyball match against  Belvidere North on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023, at Woodstock North High School.

Stefanie Otto went back and forth many times on whether this past season would be her last.

After 27 years at Prairie Ridge, she ultimately decided it was time to go.

Otto, the only girls volleyball coach the Wolves have known since the school opened in 1997, sent in her retirement papers last month. It became official at the Dec. 19 Crystal Lake Community High School District 155 Board meeting.

“I think deep down I knew ... but I kept going back and forth in my head,” said Otto, who teaches science at Prairie Ridge. “No, I’m staying. No, I’m going. I didn’t tell the girls until the season was over because I didn’t want to make a final decision until then.

“It’s a hard decision to walk away from something you love. There’s nothing like being a coach. They’re like your own kids.”

Otto led the Wolves to a 23-12 record in her first year at Prairie Ridge and owned a 682-305 record at the school. Along with two years at Cary-Grove in 1991 and 1992, she finished with 726 victories in almost 30 seasons.

Under Otto, Prairie Ridge earned 11 Fox Valley Conference, 16 regional and six sectional titles. The Wolves made back-to-back Class AA state tournament appearances in 2004 and 2005, taking second both times.

They made it to state a third time in 2018 (Class 4A), taking fourth, and are the last area team to appear at state.

Otto’s 2005 team finished a program-best 42-1, falling to Naperville Central in the state championship for its only loss.

Prairie Ridge experienced an up-and-down season this fall, going 21-18, but were the area’s last team standing in the playoffs. The Wolves went on to win a regional, then defeated Woodstock 25-21, 22-25, 28-26 in a memorable Class 3A Woodstock North Sectional semifinal.

The choice to retire at the end of the school year and step down as the Wolves’ coach wasn’t easy for Otto. Telling her players proved just as difficult.

“I made it a little bit easier on myself, and I emailed them,” Otto said. “I told them it would be too hard for me to talk to them in person because I care about them so much. I said if they had any questions, just come see me. I let them know I’ll miss them, and my door will always be open to talk. I’ll always be their biggest supporter whether I’m on the court with them or not.”

Although Otto’s time at Prairie Ridge is just about up, her coaching career is not.

Otto and her husband, Dave, who coached boys basketball for 12 seasons at C-G, will serve as assistant coaches for their oldest daughter, Taylor (Otto) Preston, as she prepares for her first season as the varsity volleyball coach at Wisconsin Dells High School in Wisconsin.

“I was honored,” Stefanie Otto said of being asked by Preston to help coach next year. “She could have picked anyone. I don’t know if she actually thought we’d do it.”

Preston, a 2014 Prairie Ridge graduate, and Jayden Otto (2019) both played for their mom at Prairie Ridge. Their younger brother Jackson currently plays at Judson University.

Jayden Otto played four years at NCAA Division I Eastern Michigan and is a graduate transfer at D-II Palm Beach Atlantic in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Preston was an assistant for her mom when Prairie Ridge went to state in Jayden’s final year of high school.

That year really stuck out to Preston.

“This past season was my ninth year coaching, so I’ve had a lot of different experiences, but my time playing for my mom and coaching with her are the ones that have really held the most weight with who I am today as a coach and as an individual.

“Her emphasis on the fundamentals even at the varsity level is something that I still drill into my players.”

She knows she’s a good coach, but I don’t think she truly understands how much of an impact she’s had on people and how much she’s put Prairie Ridge volleyball out there.”

—  Taylor (Otto) Preston, on her mom, Stefanie Otto, stepping down as coach

Preston said she is proud of her mom for always sticking to her values.

“She’s humble,” Preston said. “She knows she’s a good coach, but I don’t think she truly understands how much of an impact she’s had on people and how much she’s put Prairie Ridge volleyball out there. Things around the program might change, but she’s always had her core values of ‘We’re going to work hard, we’re going to be respectful, and we’re going to be a solid program the whole way around.’ I’m just really proud of her for sticking to her values.”

Tony Larocca, an assistant under Otto for the past nine seasons, said she always got the best out of her players.

“No matter our level of play, no matter what we thought it was going to be, she is always pushing them to beat their expectations,” Larocca said. “I feel like this year was one of those years. We weren’t really sure what was going to happen, and we finished well beyond expectations.

“It’s her steadiness of how she wants to run her program and how she’s going to push the kids to get as much out of them as she can.”

Otto leaves big shoes to fill at Prairie Ridge.

“I’ve just been so blessed to walk into a brand new school, build a program from scratch and continue to watch it grow,” Otto said. “I wanted to create a family atmosphere where hopefully most of them felt very loved and cared for, even if we pushed them really hard.

“One of my favorite things was coming to the gym every day, checking in to see how their day went and hearing all their stories of what happened.”