Otley’s lifelong passion helps team shatter record
By Mal Boright
In the past three seasons, Champlain Union High girls basketball has risen from a solid competitive program to record-setting heights under the direction of Ute Otley—who hails from Indiana, where the sport is the personification of preoccupation.
And the coach is making sure that the deep roots basketball has in the Hoosier State are taking hold in the CVU community.
Helping all of this along are three consecutive Division 1 championships and the current 71-game winning streak that last year snapped the Vermont Division 1 record set in the ‘90s by Essex High under the guidance of Vermont Hall of Fame coach Jean Robinson.
One of the first things one gleans from a conversation with Otley is that the program she runs includes much more than just the high school level. Her influence goes deep—into third and fourth grade and through junior high.
Otley has coached and administered at all levels. She conducts clinics for coaches and youngsters and even her varsity and junior varsity players participate.
Much of the youth work comes from Otley’s experiences while growing up in Indiana, where some would call a basketball rim (with net attached, of course) the state flower.
She is a native of Valparaiso, where some of her first hoop memories are those of a 6-year-old shooting baskets during her dad’s corporate league games.
“There would be a time-out and I would go out on the floor and shoot,” Otley recalled.
Her father, John Bowman, a hoops lifer, had coached high school basketball for “four or five years,” before taking a corporate administrative position at Bethlehem Steel.
When she was in the eighth grade, Valparaiso High played its way into the Indiana Final Four at the hallowed Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. Otley and the junior high players were rewarded with a bus ride to the semi-final and final if Valparaiso won.
“Valparaiso won the morning game and back then the championship game was held the same day,” Otley said. “So we were given the afternoon at a mall and then went back for the championship game in the evening, which Valparaiso lost.”
One of the stars on that team worked with Otley in the gym.
“She told me to get my left thumb out of my shot and I did,” said Otley. “It must have been peer involvement because my dad had been telling me that for four years.”
A solid high school career was nearly interrupted after her junior year at a time Otley was being heavily recruited by Division 1 powerhouses including nearby Notre Dame (her number one choice).
At an elite Blue Star camp in southern Indiana that summer, Otley had what she calls her three best days in basketball followed by her worst day.
The camp had 300 of the best players in the Midwest. In a one-on-one tournament, Otley advanced to the final four. In the camp semifinal, she drew Tanya Edwards, later to play at Tennessee.
“I got out to a 5-0 lead with my moves,” Otley recalled. Then Edwards put the hammer down.
“All of a sudden it turned around and she physically overpowered me and won it, 11-8.” said Otley.
The worst came a day later when in an air collision going for a rebound, Otley fell and tore a knee ligament.
“A knee ligament (ACL) then was a big deal. It meant I might not play anymore,” she said.
Her father got her quickly to a hospital for surgery. After the operation came the rehab once the knee and leg came out of a cast.
“The physical therapist told me I would need a year of recovery time. I replied that our first game is Nov. 28.”
“He said, ‘six months? That is highly unlikely,’” Otley said.
The unlikely became likely as Otley went through a “lonely” rehab summer including running in pools, exercise biking, dribbling basketball everywhere and other exercises. Two weeks before the start of her senior season, she was cleared to play.
“My first game back, I was wearing two giant knee braces, but I scored 26 points, like I had never been away.” she said.
But while she was back in full basketball mode, the injury gave recruiters second thoughts.
“A lot of those schools went running,” Otley said. One of those shying away was Notre Dame.
One that didn’t was Dartmouth College.
“No doubt you’ll be back as you were before,” the Big Green people told her. The persistence paid off and Otley came east to Hanover, N.H. following her high school graduation in 1986.
Otley and Dartmouth had a huge season her senior year, going 23-3 while knocking off Big Ten schools. Two of the defeats were to Connecticut and then very strong Boston College.
She praises the coaching of Dartmouth’s Jackie Hallah, noting that many of the techniques and plays the Big Green used are in the Otley tactics book today. Hallah is now head coach at Carnegie-Mellon.
But coaching was not in the life plan, at least at the beginning of her post-commencement life.
Her husband, Brian, took a job in New York and Otley happened to see an advertisement from Jericho (N.Y.) High seeking a girls basketball coach to guide its first year of varsity hoops.
“No one else applied,” she said. The first year coach and first year varsity players went 1-16 that season, but Otley had found her calling.
“I loved it,” she said.
In addition, she took advice from administrators and earned her teaching certificate. A social studies job opened up and now she was both teacher and coach.
In her second year behind the coaching whistle, the team improved to 12-5.
After two years there, it was on to Atlanta for five years, where just opening the gym during the long, hot summers would bring out hoop hopefuls otherwise bored out of their minds.
Then, about five years ago, the Otleys came back north to CVU and the Redhawks and future Redhawks.
She said over the seasons her coaching style has toned down so that when things go wrong on the floor (primarily mental miscues) it is a “quiet fury,” the players see from the bench.
“In Georgia I probably yelled more, but kids tend to tune that out,” Otley said, adding that coaching on the sidelines is more related to strategy, motivation and observing all-important match-ups.
The youth development and encouragement programs are a major part of Otley’s approach. As she is quick to point out, “You never know when a kid is going to light up, or who will grow to 6-3.”
She said when a youngster comes out and has success, he or she will feel a little better and then want to come back. Key partners are junior varsity coach Cathy Kohlasch, freshman coach Katie Kuntz and former head coach Dick Carlson.
Otley thought back to her Dad, who encouraged her at every opportunity and sent her to the elite basketball camps. He was also a tough one-on-one foe.
“I was 17 before I finally beat him one-on-one,” she said. “He never took it easy on me. After that win I thought I was ready for the big time.”
While the basketball season wound up a couple of weeks ago, CVU interim athletic director Pete Coffey observed that the work goes on.
“Her (Otley’s) basketball season is far from over,” Coffey said, noting that because this is so, “athletes coming up through can understand the commitment necessary to be a part of this.”
One of those is Sadie Otley, a junior who has just completed her third championship season as a backcourt starter.
So who now rules the family one-on-one? The question was not asked, but from seeing her in action these past three years, it is known that Sadie can quick as a flash drive to the basket, or fake the drive and launch cord-snapping treys from outside the arc.