“You will literally never see any kid on any team play harder than Eric does every single game,” Cougars coach Derek Jensen said. “It is a gift that he has. He is having a great season and has come up huge for us acting as our 6-foot center on our extremely undersized team. He consistently guards players that are 5 to 10 inches taller than him and has no problem with them because he is such a competitor and plays so much more aggressive and physical than anyone else does.”
There is one reason why Ortega has a blue-collar, bulldog type mentality on the court and in life. His mom, Gris Ocegueda, raised him by herself, tirelessly working to make sure Ortega received the best upbringing possible.
“Growing up I always felt something inside of me that made me want to work hard, and I didn’t know where it came from at first,” said Ortega, who has season averages of 13 points, eight rebounds and five steals per game. “But as I matured, I knew it came from my mom. Just seeing how hard she worked made me want to do her proud.”
Ortega has had a huge impact for Christopher, which entered the week with a 7-5 record. In the team’s second game of the season, a 68-63 loss to San Benito, Ortega recorded a school-record 13—count ‘em, 13—steals. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would’ve been proud of Ortega’s performance.
Ortega combines tenacity with a high basketball IQ to play rock-solid defense. Against San Benito, Ortega kept his eyes on the Haybalers’ ball-handlers before cutting off their passing lanes. He scored 17 points in the loss, with most of them coming on layups off steals.
Ortega’s 13 thefts broke the previous school record of 10 set by teammate Andrew Kachel in the season-opener against Trinity Christian.
“When coach said I broke the record, it was definitely a shock,” said Ortega, who had a career-high 15 rebounds in the team’s last game against Gunderson. “I didn’t know I had that many steals, but during the game it crossed my mind that I was getting a lot more than usual.”
Jensen has also been impressed with Ortega’s improvement and ability to lead with his words and actions.
“Eric is the vocal leader of our team,” Jensen said. “He leads by example and also has a tireless work ethic. Eric has made such huge strides from last year. He has become a great teammate and has become very coachable.”
Ortega made the all-tournament team at the Bob Hagen Tournament at Gilroy High, in which Christopher finished in third place. Ortega said nothing is more satisfying than coming off the court and knowing he couldn’t have given anything more. He tries to pass his work ethic to his teammates for that very reason.
“I just try to push the guys as much as I can because I’ve been on teams where the talent is greater than the effort they put in, and that doesn’t add up well,” he said. “I know since we are a small team, we have to outwork everyone if we want to be a winning team.”
Ortega also wants to be a positive role model to his 3-year-old half brother and 5-year-old half sister.
“They’re definitely a big motivation to my game,” he said. “I want to be a role model, and that is a part of showing leadership. I want to be a great role model for my teammates and my brother and sister so when they grow up, they’ll have the same work ethic.”
Ortega is no stranger to adversity. He has never met his biological dad, and even though it wasn’t an easy experience growing up, he found solace in seeing how hard his mom worked and the love she showed in supporting his every move.
“For that, I am grateful to my mom always,” Ortega said.