Delran soccer staple steps aside

Coach Mike Otto calls it a career after 22 years.

Coach Mike Otto pictured with fellow Delran legend Carli Lloyd and his sister Jennifer Olivo. (Special to The Sun)

Do you know when “Bailamos,” a song by Enrique Iglesias from the “Wild Wild West” soundtrack, was the No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 song? The first two weeks of September in 1999.

“Ally McBeal” and “The Practice” won Emmys for Outstanding Comedy and Drama Series respectively in ’99. Sega announced its new game console Dreamcast. And panic from Y2K had yet to set in, too. 

Twenty-two falls have come and gone since then and for the first time since Bailamos dominated the airwaves, Delran High School will be without one of the best coaches in school history.

Mike Otto took control of the boy’s soccer program in the fall of 1999,  when former head coach John Hughes retired. Otto, himself a product of the high school, won a state championship under Hughes in 1988.

A lifetime soccer player, he naturally turned to coaching after a collegiate career at Roanoke College. He began coaching in 1996 for St. James High School before turning to coach the girls soccer program at Bishop Eustace. When the opportunity arose for him to return home in ’99, he acted quickly.

“I’m a homegrown Delran kid,” Otto said. “It was a dream come true being able to coach the program that I played for and grew up watching.”

Though he had big shoes to fill – Otto believes Hughes is worthy of U.S.  Soccer Hall of Fame honors – it was important to know there was no replicating him.

“I had to be myself,” Otto noted.

That would be enough. The raw passion, dedication to the sport, the heart-on-his-sleeve mentality and competitive nature were enough to cultivate a winning culture at Delran.

“At the time I was gung-ho,” Otto recalled. “I started off in ’99; I was looking to win because one, it would keep my job, and two, I hated losing.”

“As the years went on, you learn a lot, mature a lot,” he added. “Winning isn’t easy. We put in the work to be as successful as we’ve been. In ’99, it was a little bit nerve-wracking.”

It’s safe to say Otto settled in well: He won his first Burlington County Scholastic League title in 2001, the third year of his tenure, then five straight. During that run from 2001 to 2005, Otto’s team won two South Jersey Sectional titles and back-to-back Group 2 New Jersey State Championships in 2003 and 2004.

Otto’s resume is unmatched, a record of 337-96-32 over his 22-year career, including five state championships, 10 sectional titles and 11 BCSL divisional championships. Over the course of a lengthy career, a coach could pick from a litany of memories, but Otto had one at the forefront of his mind.

In 2003, the Delran family lost senior Zach Romanet in a car accident. A star soccer player for the Delran Bears, Romanet wore No. 9 and no one’s worn it since – only as a small patch on the team’s warmups.

An event that could derail a season turned into a lightning rod for the Bears, something that only occurs in Disney-made sports movies: The team won its first state championship under Otto. To this day, the coach  remembers the moments after the game, when he handed the game ball to Zach’s dad, Skip, with the team’s Dom Raimo by his side.

Otto recalled the “Miracle” game, too, when his Bears were a goal shy of winning a state championship with seven seconds to play and found a way to pot the game winner. Most recently he spoke of his nephew’s goal against St. Augustine in 2016.

“It was a game winner; I airplaned across the field. They almost gave me a red card,” he said with a laugh.

What Otto will miss most of all as he steps aside for a new coach  is the Bear’s Den.

“I’ve been fortunate to have some good players come over my years. We won a lot of championships but the thing I’m most proud of is our culture we created at Delran,” he recalled.

“Playing at the Bears Den, our home field, is a special place,” Otto added. “The fans are loud and crazy; going to a soccer game in Delran is an event.

“We created a culture that’s unmatched. That’s what I’ll miss looking back.”

As much as things change over the years they stay the same. When one legend stepped aside in 1999, a state champion alumnus took the reins and created a soccer powerhouse, but after 22 long years, it’s time for Otto to say goodbye.

“I never felt like it was a job,” he offered. “Being from Delran, I thought it was a privilege, felt like Coach Hughes passed the torch to me and now it’s my time to pass the torch to the next guy. It’s such a nice job, I want someone to experience it. 

“I don’t want to be one of those guys coaching for 50 years. I’m not that guy.”

When the 2021 season comes along, new coach Tommy Orr will be in control, and he’s more than capable in Otto’s eyes.

“He’s young, has the fire and passion and I look forward to seeing the program excel,” Otto said. “I’ll be his biggest fan. I’ll be the program’s biggest fan. I want to be there and support him, I’ll be there on the other sideline: Let Tommy do his thing and add to the program.”