As an undrafted free agent, Austin Ortega had options when choosing a spot to begin his pro career.
The Escondido, California, native found that the best place for him was just down the road from home.
The 22-year-old forward, who recently wrapped up one of the best offensive careers in UNO hockey history, signed an amateur tryout agreement Monday with San Diego of the American Hockey League. He’ll join the team Tuesday.
Ortega will participate Tuesday in his first practice with the Gulls, Anaheim’s top affiliate.
“There was a lot of different options out there, but this one fit me the best,” he said. “Obviously, I was at home so it was kind of a no-brainer. It was the best situation. It will be really nice to play back at home.”
Ortega said he hasn’t played a game near home since he was 13. He then left California to play in the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League in Colorado before moving to the United States Hockey League and then UNO.
This year’s National Collegiate Hockey Conference scoring champion — he amassed 47 points (20 goals, 27 assists) in 38 games — is the only Maverick to record three seasons with 20 or more goals.
Ortega also broke the NCAA season record and tied the career mark for winning goals. His 70 career goals placed him second to Scott Parse on UNO’s all-time chart, and his 139 total points rank fourth all time.
Plenty of scouts took notice. Ortega’s agent fielded a number of calls after his last college season ended.
“It was just hard work and consistency,” Ortega said. “It’s going to take even harder work at the next level. I know I have a lot ahead of me and I need to improve myself, so I’m excited for that.”
The Gulls already had two former Mavs on their roster before signing Ortega, defensemen Jaycob Megna and Brian Cooper.
“It was nice to see some familiar faces and not go somewhere where I don’t know anyone,” Ortega said. “It’s pretty cool coming to a team where you know people. It’ll make things a little easier transition-wise.”
Ortega said Gulls coach Dallas Eakins told him they’d get him up to speed as soon as possible. The California native, who grew up a Kings fan but went to Ducks games, isn’t sure when his debut will be.
San Diego’s newest forward, who also signed a one-year deal for next year, is looking forward to it.
“It’s going to be pretty special,” Ortega said. “A lot of my family members haven’t seen me play in years.”