CRYSTAL LAKE – Prairie Ridge senior setter Taylor Otto can remember the exact date her volleyball career took an unexpected turn.
On Nov. 29, a week before the club volleyball season started, Otto landed awkwardly on a teammate's foot during Club Fusion's practice in Marengo. Her left ankle twisted, resulting in three torn ligaments. While the injury was disappointing, Otto expected to bounce back and lead the Wolves to another Fox Valley Conference Valley Division title and a deep postseason run this season.
But just one month after returning to the volleyball court with her club team in March, a shooting pain in the tibia (shin) of her left leg alerted Otto that something was wrong. An MRI – one of approximately four she's had during this whole ordeal – revealed a developing stress fracture and she was again sidelined in a boot.
"I didn't go back to club and stayed away from it because it was too stressful just sitting there and watching for another three months," Otto said.
Finally cleared to play on the first day of camp July 8, an excited Otto got back on the court. Her return didn't last long, however. About one week later, Otto began experiencing signs of another stress fracture in the same shin, forcing her again to step away from the game as she came to terms that the setback could threaten her senior season.
"It's hard because I know if it starts hurting I should sit out, but I don't want to," Otto said. "I'm trying to stay positive, too, because if I get negative, everyone's going to ask, 'Is she hurting?'"
Cleared to play, Otto has participated in Wolves practices, only limited when the team does extra running in an effort to avoid continuous pounding and pressure on her leg.
"We've got to be careful with it, because I've got to last three more months," Otto said.
Otto has been fitted with custom orthotics, which she began wearing Aug. 14. On her stress-fracture prone leg, Otto wears a hard plastic support brace that covers her left foot and ankle, which "has been hard getting used to." She typically wears the brace for at least two-thirds of practice.
For now, any plans to play volleyball in college are on hold until after the season.
"These are my last resort," Otto said of the custom orthotics. "If these don't work, I physically don't think it's possible for me to play anymore because stress fractures can turn into broken bones. I have to be careful."
Otto's quest to get and stay healthy has been tough to watch for her Wolves teammates. Senior outside hitter Kennedy McNeil said the team kind of watches over Otto and explained the situation is nerve-wracking for everyone though "we don't really talk about it."
"It's hard watching a teammate struggle like that and not be able to do anything," senior middle blocker Maddie Drain said. "It's very hard."
As one of the top returning players in the area, Otto, a Northwest Herald all-area second team player in 2012, needs to be on the court for the Wolves to reach their potential this season, which they hope includes a state appearance after falling one win short last year.
"We're grateful she's here," said Wolves coach Stefanie Otto, her mother. "She's very vital in making sure we can run a very quick offense."
While Otto is healthy right now and expected to play in the Wolves' season opener Tuesday against Lake Zurich, Stefanie Otto has other options in place should she need a breather if her foot is hurting. Kaitlyn Turskey, a junior, is the Wolves' backup setter – a transition from her natural position as right-side hitter – which could allow Prairie Ridge to run a 6-2 offense.
"We're hopeful she'll be able to make it the whole season," Stefanie Otto said of Taylor. "I don't know if she'd be able to make five matches in a tournament which is why we've been working on two options."
With eight sophomores accompanying Otto and three other seniors on the Wolves' 20-player roster, improving on serve receive and delivering more consistent passes have been the focus during practices. Prairie Ridge should be a threat to contend for the FVC Valley title even as they work through some positions getting sorted out.
Although it will take a team effort for the Wolves to finish atop the division, Otto's impact can't be overlooked.
"She's definitely a key element in the dynamic of this team with the energy that she brings and her court awareness and skills," Stefanie Otto said. "All of that helps everyone else be more comfortable on the court, too."