NEW PORT RICHEY — This time last year, Isaiah Mason was preparing for the ride of his life. The ride still hasn't ended.
Along with the rest of his Springstead High School basketball teammates, Mason was about to make school history. The Eagles went on a run toward the Class 4A state finals. It was a Cinderella story unlike any this area had ever seen.
Undefeated from the start of the campaign in November 2008 until the state final against Cocoa on March 7, Mason, along with Dante Valentine and Domnique Roberson, sparked the only title appearance in Hernando County prep boys basketball history. The team lost in the state championship game, finishing 31-1 with a runner-up trophy.
After high school, Mason set his sights on where he would play college ball. While his grades, something that had hindered him early in his prep career, weighed down his search for a four-year scholarship, it might have been a blessing in disguise when Pasco-Hernando Community College coach Bobby Bowman came knocking.
Bowman has led the Conquistador program for 19 seasons, and has a wealth of knowledge and experience. From a stint as a professional coach in the Continental Basketball Association — the same place legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson got his start — to coaching the U.S. Junior Olympic Team, he has given Mason plenty of guidance.
"(Bowman) doesn't play around," Mason said, "He's more about discipline than (former Springstead coach Pat) Kelly was."
Mason acknowledges he didn't know much about the PHCC program's history or the players who wore the Conquistador uniform through the years. Among those are former Penn State standout and All-Big Ten guard Stanley Pringle and former Southern Indiana standout Chris Thompson, the program's all-time leader in points and rebounds.
Bowman has made no secret that he believes Mason can be the next in this line of players to make the leap from junior college success to Division I stardom.
"I had some struggles early, but mostly it's been a pretty good transition," Mason said. "Just like everybody else that comes here, I'm looking to play at the next level."
His play so far as a freshman has opened a lot of eyes. He has cracked the starting lineup with his solid play as a small forward. Concerns over his defense and lack of physicality have been overshadowed by his overwhelming athleticism and scoring ability.
As the regular season drew to a close, the Conquistadors had a crucial game against first-place Hillsborough Community College at home. PHCC needed a victory to stay in the hunt for the Suncoast Conference championship. Mason delivered.
Mason started strong, , scoring 11 points in the first half and 16 for the game. He stole two balls that spurred fast breaks, finishing with two huge momentum-shifting dunks for the 15-12 Conquistadors.
PHCC won the game, 84-81.
Mason is averaging 14.8 points per game, the second-leading scorer on the team behind sophomore center Brandon Joiner. He is also third on the team in rebounds (4.7), third in assists (1.1) and leads in blocks (22). He is a favorite to be named to the all-Suncoast Conference team after the season.
He knows that in the offseason his main priority has to be hitting the weights and adding extra muscle to his 6-foot-5 frame. At only 178 pounds, he will need the extra weight to endure physical play as a forward at the next level. That's where assistant Rob Oppedisano comes in.
"Isaiah's really a tweener right now," Bowman said. "Coach Oppedisano is the best there is when it comes to weight training. He'll work with Isaiah on putting on some more muscle."
One thing is for sure. Mason has sent a strong message in his first season at the community college level: He won't shy away from hard work, and he does belong.
"Kids who succeed at (the) junior college (level) do so because of work ethic," Bowman said. "Isaiah is a perfect example of that."