FAIRFIELD, Maine — Mason Cooper always has dreamed big about basketball — and it has already paid off.
The Lawrence High School senior was a 1,000-point career scorer for the Bulldogs and last winter was named to the Bangor Daily News All-Maine second team. He was the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A Player of the Year despite the fact his team won only four games.
His career as a three-year starter for the Bulldogs left Cooper with a variety of Division III collegiate basketball options, but the 6-foot-2, 175-pound guard has higher ambitions.
I’ve always wanted to go Division I,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to get a scholarship ever since fourth or fifth grade when I wrote it down after the teacher asked what I wanted to do when I got older.”
That determination, aided in part by his friendship with another central Maine player already entrenched in the Division I basketball world, has created that opportunity for the 18-year-old Cooper. He has accepted an invitation to play at Eastern Kentucky University as a preferred walk-on next fall.
“I’m beyond thankful and really excited to be going,” said Cooper, who visited the Richmond, Kentucky, campus last week with his parents, Mark and Lauri Cooper.
Cooper’s will be a nonscholarship player, at least initially.
He averaged 24.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.6 steals and 1.5 assists at Lawrence last winter. He was weighing his collegiate options midway through the season when he decided to ask a favor of his friend and frequent offseason workout partner, Nick Mayo.
Mayo, the former Messalonskee High School star and 2015 Maine Gatorade Player of the Year, has been an All-Ohio Valley Conference first-team selection during his first two seasons as a scholarship player at Eastern Kentucky.
“This past season I talked to him every day, it’s easy with social media,” Cooper said. “So I shot him a text and got his address down there and sent some highlights and biographical information and asked if he would give it to the coaches there.
“I wasn’t expecting to hear anything back.”
Not long after the season ended Cooper did receive a text message from EKU assistant coach Ryan Whalen, and a week later they spoke by phone with Whalen offering some encouraging words.
“He said I was a player they wanted in their program,” Cooper said. “It felt really good.”
The family’s visit to the EKU campus reaffirmed Cooper’s desire to pursue a spot on the Colonels’ roster.
“I really liked the campus, the freshman dorms are sweet, and the coaches were really honest and told me upfront what the expectations were,” he said. “[Head] Coach [Dan] McHale said if you can get stronger, maybe grow a bit and get more athletic to play to the speed of the game, then if you earn time you earn time. It doesn’t matter if you’re a scholarship player or a walk-on. That really meant something to me.”
Cooper, who plans to major in exercise science, also was impressed with EKU’s new 1,200-square-foot strength and conditioning center that opened in March, as well as the atmosphere around campus.
“It’s a lot like Fairfield, really, blue collar and kind of in a farming area so I could really relate,” said Cooper. “Me and Nick talked about that, and one thing he said was that it was a lot like Oakland and I told him I totally saw the same thing when I was there.”
After discussing it with his parents during their 17-hour drive back to Maine, Cooper texted McHale on Sunday confirming his decision to accept the walk-on opportunity.
“I’m going in expecting not to play at all,” he said, “but I know what it’s like to work really, really hard for something so I’m going in with the mindset that I’m going to earn a scholarship before I graduate.”
Lawrence coach Jason Pellerin sees the combination of skill and work ethic as prominent in Cooper’s ambition to find basketball success at EKU.
“Mason is a player who can shoot from very well from all three levels,” said Pellerin. “He can finish at the rim with either hand. He can pull up off the dribble from midrange and he can shoot threes.
“I know he has worked hard on his diet and has hit the weight room hard. You can see a difference in his size already and basketball has only been done for two months,” he added. “Mason’s true talent is his drive, his work ethic and his passion for basketball. He has big dreams and follows a disciplined path to try and accomplish those goals.”
Cooper acknowledges the option of transferring to a Division II or III program will remain available if he doesn’t achieve his goals at Eastern Kentucky.
“If I’m a senior and I really haven’t gotten that playing time because I didn’t earn it — and I’m not going to be mad at coach for not playing me because I know I’m not going to be getting time unless I really earn it — I might transfer to a Division III school and have some fun for the last year.”