Just two hours after the sun gradually ascends over the Biggest Little City, head women’s soccer coach and mother of two Erin Otagaki finds her way to her Legacy Hall office to quickly rid herself of her bag. She then proceeds to head straight to the soccer practice fields for the team’s usual 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. workout.
After practice, Otagaki and her coaching staff move back to her office to discuss tactics and what’s next on their agenda. Otagaki has found herself in the middle of the most critical eight months before the team begins their 2017 campaign.
Ogataki is new in the sense of head coaching experience, but has been around the Nevada Women’s Soccer program for two season, serving as an assistant coach two seasons ago. After one season as an assistant coach, Ogataki was promoted to interim co-head coach.
Although Otagaki now resides in a winter wonderland, she didn’t always have to trod through six inches of snow to get to work. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Otagaki started playing soccer around age five, just as the majority of children who had more energy than they knew what to do with.
“I had a lot of energy so I think getting on the fields, running around playing two to three games a week was ideal for me,” Otagaki said. “Probably my parents too.”
But unbeknownst to Otagaki, this way to expend excess amounts of stamina would actually become one of the most important passions in her life.
This passion and love for the game came in two separate waves.
“I think in the beginning it was all about running around, moving and playing soccer with your friends,” Otagaki said. “As I got older, it was about competing. Trying to be the best I could be.”
Following her play in Hawaii with her youth team, the Pandas, and her high school career, Otagaki made her way to the University of Washington to begin her collegiate career as a Husky. From the jump of her freshmen season, Otagaki faced an uphill battle.
“I tore my ACL my freshmen year,” Otagaki said. “I was kind of on the back burner to begin with.”
As many know, any tear or breakage in the knee is extremely difficult to overcome. The pain is grueling and the rehabilitation period can feel like a lifetime. This unfortunate happening placed an ultimatum at her feet.
“You come to that fork in the road where you’re like my option is I can complain, whine and not try,” Otagaki said. “Or I can go after it! I can say ‘I’m going to give it my all and leave it up to the coaches of whether or not I play.’”
She refused to allow this massive injury to hinder her aspirations to be the best soccer player she could be. No, it is not an easy feat to bounce back from any injury, let alone one that affects the main tool for contention in soccer. But her drive, motivation and willingness to put in that work finally earned her a starting position two years into her collegian career.
Otagaki used this as a learning experience, never allowing it to bog down her true wants as far as soccer goes.
“I think that sometimes those lows are highs,” Otagaki said. “Maybe not at the moment but it becomes a high because you look back on it and say ‘wow, I got through that.’”
Otagaki’s optimistic nature is a characteristic every coach should have, and she got a lot of it from her mentor at the University of Washington, head coach Lesle Gallimore.
“When I was playing I hung on her every word,” Otagaki said. “’Okay coach! What do I need to do?”
By making it a point to break down every piece of advice given to her from Gallimore with a purpose, Otagaki assisted her team in its quest for gold as the Huskies won its first women’s soccer Pac-10 championship, making the University of Washington the first team outside of California to do so. Along with this prestigious accolade, Otagaki and her team visited the NCAA tournament on three separate occasions.
But all good things must come to an end sometime, which was the case with Otagaki’s playing career. However, Gallimore’s impact on Otagaki didn’t stop with her playing days.
“As I got older and graduated I went to grad school and volunteered at Washington,” Otagaki said. “When I was volunteering and flipped on the coaching side of things I had a deep respect for what she did and how she ran the program.”
This deep respect that Otagaki had for Gallimore allowed her to set aside pride and take things from Gallimore that evolved her into a loving, caring and motivating coach.
“I not only wanted to give back, but also get involved in something where you have a great opportunity to help these young women develop as soccer players and as people,” Otagaki said. “To see the amazing maturation process of an 18-year old freshmen to a 22-year old senior, you see how deeply you can influence their lives in a positive way. That’s what Lesle did for me and that’s what I hope I can do for young women as I coach them through their college years.”
Every head coach wants to win, but some crave victory so much that they sacrifice everything and anything to get it, sometimes including a complete disregard for their athletes mental and physical health. Otagaki is unique in the sense that she has a deep-rooted emotional connection to her athletes. She wants her players to develop holistically, not just in a soccer sense.
The women’s soccer program appears to be in good hands, as the team finally has a direction. A direction that stems from a woman who may be petite in stature, but whose heart, pride and willpower seep through her pores and are more than prevalent in every word she speaks
“My goal is to really help young women identify themselves and figure out its worth it,” Otagaki said. “Even if you fail, you have to get back up and try.”