Mission High's Dante Lopez at Richard R. Flores Stadium photo session on Sunday, Jan.31,2021 in Edinburg. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | dlopez@themonitor.com

EDINBURG — Defensive tackles typically aren’t known for eye-popping statistics, but Mission High’s Dante Lopez became a rare exception during an exceptional senior season.

Lopez anchored the Rio Grande Valley’s stingiest defense along the interior of the Eagles’ defensive line and frequently commanded double and triple teams to prevent him from collapsing the pocket and blowing up ball carriers in the backfield.

For his work as the Valley’s most disruptive defensive tackle and a veteran leader on one of the most accomplished Mission Eagles teams in recent memory, Lopez has been tabbed The Monitor’s All-Area Football Defensive Player of the Year.

“It’s an honor to be given this (award). Without my teammates, I wouldn’t be here,” Lopez said. “Everyone works as one, so when one person succeeds, everyone else succeeds. Luckily for me, I was able to stand out, but if everyone hadn’t done their job, I wouldn’t be in this position that I am.”

Lopez asserted himself as one of the premier defensive playmakers throughout District 31-6A and the RGV this season.

Despite frequent double teams, the senior defensive tackle tallied 21 total tackles, four tackles for loss and a sack en route to being selected as 31-6A’s unanimous choice for Defensive Player of the Year.

Lopez was also honored for his performance this season with an invitation to compete in the Blue-Grey High School Football All-American game Jan. 25 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, although the Mission High defensive standout attributes most of his success to his teammates.

“You have to have help from your other two or three defensive linemen rushing because without them causing penetration as well, you cannot get as many successful stops and blocks,” Lopez said. “We had two first-team (all-district picks) to the left and right of me and also on the outside. You really had to choose who you’re going to double team and who you’re going to focus all your attention on. If it wasn’t me, then it was someone else making a play.”

Lopez’s ferocity in the heart of the defense helped turn Mission High into the RGV’s top defensive unit heading into the postseason.

The Eagles held four of their seven opponents to their lowest point totals of the season, which included three contests that were either shutouts or one-score games by their opposition.

Mission ended the regular season surrendering 144.2 yards per game, the top mark across the Valley, and was the only defense to give up fewer than 750 total yards heading into the state playoffs.

Mission High’s Dante Lopez at Richard R. Flores Stadium photo session on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021 in Edinburg. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | dlopez@themonitor.com

“We’re not the biggest and we’re not the strongest or the fastest, but the way we looked at this season was that we were all going to come together. We were going to overcome this challenge of the pandemic and we were going to play football, work together and win,” Lopez said.

“We shut out or held every team we played to single digits or in the teens. Even against (Edinburg) Vela when the score may have seemed lopsided, we held them to their lowest point total (of the regular season) when they normally had 35 or 40 points in a half. Defensively, we saw this season as a major win.”

Lopez also shined as a high-caliber wrestler during his junior year before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During his first season competing on the mat, Lopez won an individual district championship and advanced to the state wrestling championships in the heavyweight division, which he credits to improving his technique on the football field.

“It helps with your hands and your power,” he said. “I may be big for the Valley, but there are guys on the Vela and Laredo United South lines that are just bigger and there was nothing I could do about that. But with my hands, that helps majorly against those bigger guys.”

Lopez and the Eagles were galvanized in the lead up to the 2020 season by a series of tragedies that befell members of the team, beginning with senior linebacker Ram Garcia being diagnosed with Leukemia in August and followed by the unexpected deaths of Omar Trujillo and Sonny Detmer, the fathers of junior quarterback Jeremy Duran and former Mission High head coach Koy Detmer.

“First with Ram Garcia getting diagnosed with cancer, that was just a heartbreaker to all of us. He may not seem like it, but he’s a big part of our team. Everyone loves the guy and everyone cares for him, so hearing that came as a major shock to all of us,” Lopez said. “Then another one of our brothers, Jeremy Duran, lost his father, Omar Trujillo, and most of us played on a squad with him at one point in our lives, so just hearing that news devastated us. … All these tragedies led to something greater, though, in us playing for one another.”

During his three-year stint on the Eagles’ varsity squad, Lopez helped lead Mission High to several program milestones.

Lopez and his senior teammates helped lead the Eagles to three straight trips to the state playoffs, a district championship and the team’s first postseason victory in 11 years, the program’s first at the Class 6A Division I level.

The Eagles’ senior defensive tackle said he was proud to continue to build upon the foundation of senior classes that preceded him and add many team accomplishments onto one of the Valley’s most historic high school football programs.

“It’s amazing to have played amidst so much tradition. Mission has been somewhere in the past and these past three years of mine playing varsity football, we’ve succeeded in doing things that haven’t been done in years,” Lopez said. “As seniors, we were the leaders and role models of the team. If we did not show up, how can we expect other people to show up? It was all about preparing and showing those younger guys, ‘We want to be here and we want y’all to follow.’”

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch