MISSION — Just before the start of his seventh-grade year, Jaime Perez Jr. moved from the Sharyland district to the Edinburg district.
The youngster, adorned in his typical cowboy boots and jeans, met two people who would change the course of his high school career at Edinburg Vela.
“I met Ivan (Mendoza) going into my seventh-grade year,” Perez said. “I met Ivan and AJ (Sotelo), they were my first two friends when I moved over here. It was crazy, they took me in, and introduced me to all of their friends, and we have all been close ever since then.”
Baseball was a common thread between the three of them, but so was football. At the time, the dream was Sotelo throwing to his two wideouts, Mendoza and Perez.
But, after freshman year, Mendoza and Perez had to make a tough choice about their football careers.
“(The coaches) told me if I wanted to get on the field, it would be at DB,” Perez said.
The same was true for Mendoza.
“So that is what we did,” Perez said.
The pair’s move paid off, as they took District 31-6A by storm, and dominated the defensive backfield, even when Division I athletes were against them. For their combined work at the safety positions in Vela’s secondary, Perez and Mendoza are The Monitor’s Co-Newcomers of the Year.
“It means a lot,” Mendoza said. “Me and Mito worked super hard for this. Going into the football season, we told each other we were going to do something big.”
Perez was the starting catcher for the varsity baseball team last year, and so between those innings caught, and the transition from receiver to safety, Perez took a toll for the year.
“It was hard on my legs, going from catching all season to going back to football, with all of the backpedaling and cutting you have to do,” Perez said. “It was tough, but I adapted to it well, and I feel even more comfortable with DB than receiver now, honestly.”
In baseball, Mito — as Perez is now known throughout the city of Edinburg — got off to a blazing hot start to the season. He hit over .800 for a big chunk of the season. So, to Mendoza’s point, the boys knew they wanted to make a similar impression right away on the gridiron.
In Vela’s opener against Laredo United, Perez picked off two passes. Mito pulled down six interceptions on the year.
“When we were receivers, we worked on our hands a lot,” Mendoza said. “That helped us this year, a lot, with our interceptions.”
Mendoza had three picks.
Interceptions are one thing, but they can sometimes come down to luck, or be set up by a dominant pass rush. The other things the pair did on the field was what separated them from the pack.
Mendoza was third on the team with 47 tackles. Perez was fifth with 39.
Their support for each other and their camaraderie on and off the field paid off.
“Mito works so hard,” Mendoza said. “I am just proud of him, for working hard, so he could go out there and ball out.”
“Ivan is little, but this guy is a monster,” Perez said. “He competes. He doesn’t care if you are big or small, he will go after you. If he gets knocked down, he is back up right away, ready to keep fighting. He’s a little rascal. I love him. He will not back down from anybody, and that is what I love about him. He is going to compete, and he is never going to quit before you do.”
For Perez, work ethic is not something he needed to be taught. In fact, his high motor came to him from outside the world of sports.
His family lives on a farm, complete with several different animals and plenty of land to be cared for. Growing up, there was always work for Perez to do on the farm. Even now, after school and football practice, he will get some work done on the farm before wrapping up the evening with his homework.
“It’s an everyday thing,” Perez said. “We get up at five or six in the morning. We feed the animals. It is a hassle, getting home, and then moving hay bales. Then doing homework. Sometimes going back outside. It’s fun, but at the same time it is stressful.”
But his work ethic shows through, even beyond what he does on the farm. Perez’s father Jaime Perez Sr. is Vela’s baseball coach. Baseball has been in the family for as long as they can remember, so Perez Sr. built a hitting tunnel on his farm.
Often, Perez will finish his homework and farm duties, and then go get in 100 swings in the tunnel before bed.
The Perez hitting tunnel has become a place of lore around the Valley. Players from all over come to hit with Mito, and his brothers. That includes a large portion of Vela players including UTRGV freshman Aaron Galvan, UTRGV commit Ramsey Amador, Kansas State commit Nico Rodriguez, and of course the trio that formed such a bond back in seventh grade: Mito, Mendoza and Sotelo.
The reason Mendoza and Perez mesh so well is because they can match each other’s intensity. Mendoza’s work rate earned him a very prominent role on Vela’s special teams units, because he became the Valley’s Dikembe Mutombo, blocking everything in sight. In all, Mendoza blocked 11 kicks or punts on the year.
“There is no secret to it,” Mendoza said. “I just get off well, and that is what allows me to use my speed to get there. … I’m reading the ball, I don’t pay attention to anything else. I block out everything, all the noise. As soon as I see the ball move even slightly, I’m gone.”
Sometimes the kicks didn’t matter, like when Vela had a giant lead late in games, but his favorite block of the year came at one of the most crucial junctures of the season.
“It was against Weslaco East,” Mendoza said. “It was a field goal. They were at the 15 or 20, and I blocked it.”
It was early in a scoreless game. The field goal would have capped a long, churning drive by the Wildcats, but Mendoza’s block stole all the momentum and allowed Vela to get the lead first.
There is no rest for the weary now though, as the boys have started to ramp up their baseball work in order to get ready for what could big Vela’s biggest year yet. But they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Every morning, I am in the weight room with Nico, working out,” Mito said. “Every night, going to the tunnel and hitting.”
“I am so excited for this season,” said Mendoza, who is in line to make his varsity debut this year. “We have a really good team, and we really want to go far in the playoffs.”