By Desirée Keegan
University of North Carolina standout Jamie Ortega wanted to live up to the hype after being named Inside Lacrosse’s No. 1-ranked freshman attacker, and she did just that with a record-breaking first season with a Tar Heels team that reached the NCAA semifinals.
The Centereach native was tabbed National Rookie of the Year as well by the lacrosse-centric publication, and Freshman of the Year by the Atlantic Coast Conference, navigating her way to be the top goal-scorer on a deep North Carolina offense. She shot 57.4 percent for 70 goals and added 16 assists while starting in all 18 games, scoring multiple goals in each of the Tar Heels’ final 14 contests, including 12 in a three-game span in the NCAA tournament. Her 86 points broke UNC’s single-season record while she led all ACC rookies and ranked fourth overall in the conference. Her 70 goals also broke a 2008 record (50) for most goals scored by a freshman in a season, ranked second overall in the ACC and tied for 11th in Division I.
“She’s a tremendous talent,” 23-year North Carolina head coach Jenny Levy said. “[Myself and my coaching staff] have done this for a long time, and when you see ‘It’, you see it. She really has multiple weapons — she can dodge, feed and play off-ball — and she’s done that for a long time. She’s had the most tremendous freshman year we’ve ever had.”
Levy, who is considered among the best coaches in women’s lacrosse history, ranking third in NCAA Division I history in career wins and is a two-time national champion and a two-time National Coach of the Year, said she challenged Ortega to perform at a high level after UNC graduated a huge class of seniors. She said she hadn’t put that type of pressure on a freshman in a long time, and said she thought Ortega responded.
“I wasn’t really expecting being ranked the top recruit in the nation, and it did make me nervous because I felt like I had to live up to that expectation, but it also made me want to work harder, because I wanted to prove I was the No. 1 lacrosse recruit in the nation,” said Ortega, who was also named to the Inside Lacrosse ILWomen All-Rookie Team and All-America third team. “Being named the Rookie of the Year means a lot to me because it showed that through college — which is really hard, because it’s not like high school, everyone’s good — I can still stand out.”
She credited her teammates, like Marie McCool, a decorated player in her own right, for pushing her to become better, and giving her opportunities to succeed.
McCool said Ortega proved she was a force all her own, especially after the freshman recorded her 15th goal of the conference tournament, which broke a North Carolina record set by attacker Molly Hendrick the season prior.
“I don’t let things get to me. I feel I can push through adversities and the challenges defenders face me with.”
— Jamie Ortega
“Jamie Ortega is a special player,” McCool told The Daily Tar Heel. “She’s only a freshman and the confidence that she plays with — you don’t see it often with freshmen.”
Ortega played her best lacrosse the second half of the season. She scored a career-high seven goals and closed out a 10-0 first-half run in a 20-10 win against Duke University April 21. The performance was one goal shy of the UNC single-game record set in 2002.
Ortega grew accustomed to the spotlight in high school, having experienced facing double-teams throughout her six years on her Middle Country high school team, which she led to its first Suffolk County title and state championship game in 2017. Even a switch from midfield to attack couldn’t slow her down this season.
“It just comes so natural to her, playing the game how it is supposed to be played,” Middle Country head coach Lindsay Dolson said. “Jamie did an awesome job on defense and offense for us. She definitely led the team in that aspect.”
Her senior year she tallied 98 goals and 45 assists and finished as New York state’s all-time leader in points with 588 (402 goals and 186 assists). She was also a five-year varsity starter and two-time all-county pick on Centereach High School’s soccer team.
“I’m a pretty confident person,” Ortega said. “I think that’s really important for other players to have. I don’t let things get to me. I feel I can push through adversities and the challenges defenders face me with.”
Through all her triumphs she also had some unique experiences as a Tar Heel, like when she faced her older sister Nikki, an attack for the University of Notre Dame. The sisters scored unassisted and back-to-back for the first goals for each of their teams in UNC’s come-from-behind win.
“It was stressful, because you want them both to win,” their mother Susan said, laughing. “I’m so proud of them, and one thing with Jamie is she’s always trying to get better and her hard work really paid off. Jamie is the most humble kid you’re ever going to meet. She doesn’t talk about herself, she doesn’t watch herself, and I think that makes it even more impressive to me because she’s all about the game and playing, and playing with her team, and having fun doing it.”
Jamie Ortega also had the chance to play minutes from her home when Stony Brook University hosted the NCAA playoffs for North Carolina, which made its 10th appearance in the NCAA tournament semifinals, including seven in the last 10 years. She had four goals and one assist in the team’s final appearance of 2018 against James Madison University, earning All-NCAA Tournament Team honors.
If that all wasn’t enough, Ortega is giving back to a sport that’s given so much to her.
She worked a camp called Top of the Class at Lawrence Academy in Massachusetts with her assistant coach Phil Barnes, who runs it with Harvard University head coach Devon Wills. Many Ivy League schools and coaches were there, along with six of her UNC teammates. She said working with the freshman to junior players felt natural.
“I didn’t feel like I was coaching — it felt like I was just hanging out with some lacrosse girls,” Ortega said. “This is definitely something I never expected, because I’m not one to brag, but being an idol to others really motivated you more. Lacrosse means everything to me, and to be able to play, and to still play at this level, making memories with my teammates, trying to succeed with them and giving back to others has been a privilege.”