Austin Ortega scored a goal in his first collegiate game.
And he’s been steady ever since.
The National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s freshman of the week for Jan. 17 and 18, when he had two goals and an assist in two games at Miami (Ohio), Ortega is a significant contributor for a UNO team set to play a significant series this weekend with fifth-ranked St. Cloud State.
“He’s surprised us a little bit,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “A freshman with the possibility of getting 10 goals and 10 assists — that’s a pretty good year for a sophomore, junior or senior.”
Through 20 games this season, Ortega has six goals and six assists with 12 regular-season games remaining. He’s tied for fourth among NCHC freshmen in goals, and is tied for eighth among league rookies with 12 points.
“I was just hoping for the best, not expecting anything,” Ortega said. “Good things have been coming my way recently.”
Ortega’s goal totals put him fourth on the team behind veterans Josh Archibald, Brock Montpetit and Dominic Zombo. He’s eighth on the team in points.
“He’s a very skilled player and it shows,” said Zombo, an alternate captain. “Skating with him in the summer, you could tell he had the potential to put up points and make a difference in games.”
Good thing for UNO — and for Ortega — that he sort of stumbled upon hockey in a not so typical place, his hometown of Escondido, Calif.
“My parents really didn’t know what it was,” Ortega said. “But I saw it at a rink one time — I forget why I was even there. It just came to me that I really wanted to play, and my parents finally put me in after I’d begged them long enough.”
Soon, by age 9 or so, Ortega was playing in a league in Los Angeles, about an hour from home. He moved out of state and played for a Denver team at age 15, and made his way to the United States Hockey League in 2011-12, playing for Cedar Rapids. He split his 2012-13 season between Fargo and Indiana.
In 125 career USHL games, he had 53 goals and 40 assists — and a new-found appreciation for California warmth.
“(Fargo) is definitely the coldest place I’ve played,” Ortega said. “I’m never a fan of the cold, and I’m always a baby about it.”
At 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds, and just 19, Ortega looks pretty youthful on the ice, too. But don’t let that fool you.
“He’s always been a scorer, but to be a scorer in this league you’ve got to be fast and you’ve got to be gritty,” Blais said. “And he seems to have figured it out.”
Ortega said he makes up for his lack of size with speed and vision.
“I know I’m small,” he said, “but I’m not afraid in the corners. I can produce defensively..”
He can produce on special teams, too. Both of his goals in the Miami series came on UNO’s power play.
“We don’t just hand those (power-play shifts) out,” Blais said. “He’s earned that.”
Ortega downplayed his individual accolades earned in the Miami series, which put UNO back on track with four of a possible six NCHC points.
“We played really well as a team, did exactly what we’d worked on and played the game that coach told us to play,” he said. “We played well as a team and we all came out successful individually.”