Five Santa Rosa seniors have found their new academic and athletic home for the 2020-21 season.
Mike Bermea, Adam Cavazos, Ryan Garza, Jose Ruiz and Ethan De La Garza will play football for Graceland University. Bermea, Cavazos, Garza and Ruiz also will play baseball.
Graceland is a small private Christian university located 80 miles south of Des Moines, Iowa. The Yellowjackets compete in the NAIA’s Heart of America Conference.
Graceland’s 2019 football roster featured seven Texas natives, and the school’s baseball roster from this season featured just one Texan.
Santa Rosa baseball coach Tony Leal said the academic environment and small class size will help the players navigate the new environment. He added that getting the chance to see more of the world beyond the Rio Grande Valley will serve them well, even if it can be scary for some to leave home for the first time.
“Those kids get along well,” Leal said. “It’s a small town, and they got to experience all of that. If they were at a bigger school, sometimes it’s hard to play (multiple sports). It’s very difficult. Since we’re at Santa Rosa and we’re a smaller district, it helps the athletes more, with the competition.”
A Valley native, Los Fresnos alumnus and right-handed pitcher Andrew Gray, played for the Yellowjackets for four seasons from 2016 to 2019.
Bermea, a safety and wide receiver, is a middle infielder on the diamond. Adam Cavazos is a defensive lineman and catcher. Garza is a receiver and an infielder. Jose Ruiz plays quarterback and the outfield for the Warriors, and De La Garza is a middle linebacker.
“They’ve grown up together, and they’ve played together,” Leal said. “They’ll go through the ups and downs together, and I don’t think they’ll get discouraged that way.”
Santa Rosa football coach Hector Ayala said Graceland was looking to bolster its defense, so Ruiz and Garza likely will play corner for the Yellowjackets.
Ayala and Leal both credited Warriors defensive coordinator Pablo De Los Santos for his help guiding the seniors toward their next destination.
De Los Santos is a Brownsville Hanna alumnus who played basketball and football for Graceland.
De Los Santos contacted one of his former Graceland teammates, an admissions officer at the school, to inform him that he had five players who hadn’t yet signed with a college.
“I told him, I’ve got five good kids who can help you,” De Los Santos said. “My alma mater is struggling, they’ve been bad for the last four years. … He (and the coaches) saw the kids’ highlights, and then said, ‘What can we do?’ And then we got the ball rolling.”
He has made multiple stops throughout his coaching career, including a stint as a graduate assistant at Texas Christian University. From there, he went to Bethany College and Abilene Christian University, then returned to the Valley to coach at Progreso and Valley View.
Mike Burget, the coach at Weslaco East, is another Graceland alumnus who referred De Los Santos to the school.
“I just had really good teachers who steered me the right way,” De Los Santos said. “It was easy for me to play. I never thought about going to college before I started doing really well.”
It was because of his strong group of leaders that he felt compelled to give back as a coach and to demonstrate the mentorship that had been shown to him as a student-athlete.
“I always told myself, ‘If I ever go back, I want to give back,’” De Los Santos said.
The self-described “kid from the barrio” had never left Texas before he came to Iowa, and he envisions a similar level of culture shock for this group of Warriors.
“The most amazing thing about these kids is they’re hard workers,” De Los Santos said. “They’re hard workers, they’ve never missed a meeting, never missed a practice.”
The veteran defensive coordinator wants this year’s class of Santa Rosa players to enjoy the college experience as much as he did and to set them up for success in the future.
“I had a lot of great memories with my teammates,” De Los Santos said. “I still keep in touch with them. I just want them to have good memories and for them to come back to South Texas with a degree.”