3-sport Ortega exceeds dreams at Centre

September 04, 2003|MIKE MARSEE

What John Ortega has done - and what he hopes to continue to do in his final months at Centre - isn't what he had hoped for when he set out to play college football.

It's more.

Ortega was just looking for a place to play football when he landed in Danville, but he has become arguably the best all-around athlete on the Centre campus.

He has developed into an all-conference cornerback who can dare to dream of a football future beyond college, something he couldn't even imagine coming out of high school.

"Your dreams may change, but the ultimate goal may be what you want," Ortega said.

Along the way, Ortega has become a valuable player in two other sports as well, starring for Centre's baseball and basketball teams.


First to start in football, basketball and baseball since 1952

In the last school year, he became the first Centre athlete to start for the football, basketball and baseball teams since 1952. He was an all-Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference selection in football and baseball, and he made the all-SCAC Tournament team in basketball.

"In high school I played all three sports," he said. "I've always been used to staying busy all the time."

Currently, Ortega is preparing for his final football season, which begins Saturday when the Colonels play at Kenyon. But that preparation has actually been going on for some months, and it got going in earnest this summer when Ortega spent about a month with family members in Florida.

He worked out with his brother in stifling Southern heat that he said prepared him for Centre's preseason camp. He was also hard at work in the weight room, where he put on 15 pounds to bulk up to about 205.

That could make Ortega more attractive to professional scouts, some of whom have already taken notice of him. He worked out for the a scout from the NFL's St. Louis Rams in April, and a scout from the Carolina Panthers also scheduled a workout that had to be canceled because of a conflict with a final exam.

"I'd love to pursue that," he said. "I'm just so blessed and thankful to even have a shot to get a look."

Ortega said such an idea never entered his mind when he walked on at Kentucky out of Prestonsburg High School. He had also been recruited by Centre, and Centre's coaches were still eager to talk to him when things didn't work out in Lexington.

"The coach that recruited me here, (former assistant coach Rob) Tenyer, told me, 'You never know what your body will do,'" Ortega said. "It's funny how that's proved out at Centre."

Ortega has become a force for the Centre defense, where he led the team in tackles as a sophomore with 108. He was second last year with 83 and fourth in the conference in average tackles per game.

Ortega might have made a similar impact on the Centre offense had he chosen to go that route. He had over 3,000 rushing yards and over 1,500 receiving yards in his high school career, and when he was first recruited by Centre he was asked which unit he'd prefer to play for.

"I couldn't see myself anywhere else but defense," he said.

Plenty of opportunity to play offense in other sports

Besides, there has been plenty of opportunity for Ortega to play offense in his other sports. In baseball, he led the Colonels in batting average (.384) and on-base percentage (.450) and was 18-for-18 in stolen-base attempts. In basketball, he averaged 6.4 points and 1.9 assists per game and led the team in 3-point shooting percentage (.457).

Ortega turned to basketball last fall just in time to help that team out of a jam. He wasn't sure if he wanted to play, but he became invaluable after point guard Kyle Roby suffered a season-ending injury days before the opening game.

"Once that happened, I knew it was sort of a sign," he said.

Balancing the practice and playing schedules of three sports with the academic demands of Centre has been a challenge, but Ortega has met it head on.

Last year was the first time he played all three sports in the same school year, and he said he was feeling the effects of that by the end of baseball season.

"The first part of the summer, I took a little time to relax and recuperate," he said.

It won't happen again this year. Ortega is on track to complete his degree requirements in December, but he'll take one more class in Centre's winter term that will make him eligible for the entire basketball season.

His career goals are in the area of computer programming, but once basketball season ends he'll turn his attention toward trying to extend his football career.

"Up until May graduation, I'll probably train and hopefully get some tryouts," he said.

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