Ortega comes up in the clutch for UNO
Austin Ortega and goals have always gone hand in hand, but this season he’s scoring clutch ones at a record pace for the University of Nebraska-Omaha (UNO).
The sophomore from Escondido ended the regular season with an NCAA-record 11 game-winning goals in the Mavericks’ 34 regular-season games, helping qualify for the 16-team NCAA Tournament.
“There are a lot of very good players who play four years and don’t get that many game-winning goals,” said Mavericks head coach Dean Blais, who’s closing in on four decades as a coach. “There aren’t many times I have to sit him down and tell him, ‘I need more from you.’ He’s delivering everything he should.”
So how has Ortega, who played for the San Diego Jr. Gulls, Anaheim Jr. Ducks and LA Hockey Club/LA Selects in California, managed his record-setting pace?
“His skating allows him to be around the net,” Blais said. “He’s gotten them through shooting, rebounds and just being in the right place at the right time. His speed and hockey sense allow him to get there.”
Those attributes stood out to Blais when he was recruiting Ortega out of the United States Hockey League (USHL), where he played for the now-defunct Indiana Ice then the Fargo Force, racking up 106 points in 140 games.
Another was toughness. Despite standing 5-foot-8, Ortega isn’t afraid to play along the boards, and he excels equally at creating offense after contact or in open space. He finished the regular season with a team-high 33 points and 18 goals – tied for 20th nationally.
“Austin is really skilled and really explosive,” said former Jr. Gulls coach Larry Cahn. “He’s really quick out of the corners, but he also can hang high and transition quick.
“At Select camps, Austin often was ranked No. 1 because he was so good at getting the puck in one-on-one situations and burying it.”
After playing hockey in California through his freshman year in high school, Ortega played two seasons for the Colorado Thunderbirds, winning a USA Hockey national championship at Midget 16U AAA, then went to the USHL. He knew he wanted to continue his career in the western portion of the United States.
UNO provided a good fit for many reasons.
“Besides (the University of Denver) and (Colorado College), it was one of the closer schools, and the new (Northern Collegiate Hockey Conference) was a big part of it,” Ortega said. “Plus, there’s a new rink going up in Omaha.
“Everything felt right on the visit, and to play for Dean Blais, who has an amazing history as a hockey coach, was important.”
A fixture on any USA Hockey coaching hot list, Blais guided Team USA to a gold medal at the 2010 World Junior Championships after leading North Dakota to NCAA championships in 1997 and 2000.
There also was the opportunity to play right away. Ortega had 19 points in 35 games during his freshman season on veteran-laden team headed by All-American Josh Archibald, who signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins after last season.
“I gained a lot of valuable experience, which helped my confidence,” Ortega said. “I learned so much from the older players.”
That’s come in particularly handy this season because UNO has 17 underclassmen, including 10 freshmen on its 26-man roster.
The learning curve extended beyond the ice, however. Ortega said his biggest adjustment – one common to many players moving from junior to college – was balancing school work with hockey again after having a season between graduating from high school and starting college.
But the college experience has agreed with him.
“I love playing in front of large crowds, people I go to school with,” Ortega said. “The travel is fun and it’s cool to play in buildings I grew up watching games at.”
– Chris Bayee