Cool Hand Luke: Mason ices body regularly to stay game ready for surging Rio Americano

Joe Davidson/

Luke Mason approached the ladder Monday night with equal parts glee and caution.

The joy of getting to the top step because it was much like his basketball playing career, a process, and cutting the net down punctuated a Capital Athletic League season well done. The caution is years in the making.

Mason is Rio Americano High School’s 6-foot-6 senior leader in scoring, in effort and in example. He gets up early before school to go through a number of stretching exercises to loosen a tightly wound body. He takes ice baths after practices and games, the cold water right up to his neck, to soothe aches and pains in his knees and back, some of it from the rigors of competition over the years, but mostly because of how he’s built.

The pain nearly threatened to derail his Raiders basketball experience, but Mason never wavered. He gave up summer AAU ball with his friends to allow his body more time to rest. He has no regrets. Mason may take a flight of stairs a bit more carefully than his teammates when the lunch bell rings, but otherwise the versatile guard is all systems go come game time.

Mason stepped off that ladder after scores of teammates scaled it in quick order to work those scissors on that net, and he exhaled. The last thing he needed was to spill off the thing and have an ice down at midcourt. Mason earned that ladder because he has played like the CAL Most Valuable Player and a Bee Player of the Year candidate, leading the charge for a team that plays together and inspired.

The Raiders specialize in making the extra pass. They do not flaunt made 3-pointers or a successful fast break. This is a smart team if not one that is jump-out-of-the-gym athletic, and it all starts with No. 11 — the lanky lad with the shock of hair.

“When this season started, I asked him if he was ready for everything we do to go through him on offense, and he was, and we knew he’d be dangerous,” Rio Americano coach Chris Jones said after his Bee-ranked No. 4 Raiders defeated No. 8 Sacramento 76-65 to lock up the CAL while moving to 23-4 overall. “Luke’s been through so much with his body. He’s worked so hard to get on the court. He’s had a great year. He lets his game do the talking because he’s insanely hard to guard.”

First, Mason wanted to be good enough to be guarded. He didn’t play until December as a junior, until his body was right, and he averaged 9.6 points in 17 games for a playoff team. This season, Mason has averaged nearly 20 points per game, taking it to teams in a variety of ways.

Mason will post up smaller players, or he’ll drive by slower ones. He will shoot over anyone. He is clever with the back-door play, either as the scorer or the passer, and he is especially effective with Raiders point guard Miles Lake.

“Last year, I wasn’t the first or second scoring option for us, so I had to have a new mindset this season: scoring off screens, off post-ups, the perimeter,” Mason said.

Mostly, Mason is glad to be on the court. Doctors have told him that, for whatever reasons, Mason’s hips are aligned in a way that puts a strain on his knee ligaments and back muscles. After a big win, Mason’s teammates might run around a bit, but he stays put. He isn’t about to go rock climbing any time soon.

Mason said the ice downs and cryotherapy sessions do a body good. He said he will likely explore the junior college route but plans to play this game as long as his body will allow.

“I’m still preventative with the ice baths, and I stretch a lot,” Mason said. “I love this game. I’ll go the JC route to see how my body holds up. I’m so glad to be playing and to be pretty healthy. It’s been super cool this season with all my friends on this team.”

The Raiders were so efficient with ball movement against Sacramento that Jones, the coach, sat in proud wonder. Coaches live for teams, players and seasons like this, Jones said, so it was no wonder he hustled over to find that ladder after the game and brought it over to the basket.

Rio wins another league

Rio Americano has celebrated each of its 13 league championships won over the decades, including in the 1980s under coach Al Manfredi and in the late 1990s under Scott Gradin and now the fourth one under Jones.

Jones this season has basked in the view of watching Mason and Lake lead the back court, and shooter Jace Thompson, and banger Dylan Newberry, and inside presence Hunter Howell, and energy player Ke’on Miller off the bench. The Raiders are the only local team to defeat Bee No. 1-ranked Folsom this season, and they stand as a favorite in the upcoming CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division II playoffs.

If they keep this up, the winning will continue into March.

“I was sitting on the bench tonight and I go, ‘Wow. Look how well we’re playing,’” Jones said. “It’s so apparent that the players all believe in each other. And Mason has that killer instinct for us. He hits 3’s, layups, spin moves. I try not to screw it up and let them play.”

Mason’s parents always on campus

Mason is a big man on campus, known for his basketball prowess, his mellow personality, and for his parents. They’re teachers at Rio Americano, Jolynn in English and Justin in Government. That can either be a cool thing for the kid of teachers, or an odd thing. It’s been both.

“My first semester here, as a freshman, it was weird having parents here as teachers,” Mason said. “Everyone recognized me as the teacher’s kid. But my parents are well liked here. No hard time. It’s been great.”

Mason took his mother’s English class as a junior — he passed! — and was in his father’s government class in the fall. He passed that one, too. Naturally, Mason is a good student.

Mom and dad sit proudly watching a son who has grown up on campus. They have a junior son, Aaron, as a Rio Americano student, and a sixth-grade daughter, Brynn, who will someday be a Raider.

Jolynn has taught English at Rio Americano for 27 years and Justin has taught on campus for 25. No two people have been on campus more over the last quarter century.

“We met here, our kids go here, it’s our livelihood, and this campus has been a focal point for us for so long,” Jolynn Mason said.

She added, “Luke’s been so diligent with the morning stretches, the ice baths, anything to get ready. It’s all tied to those hips. We’re baffled. He never had problems until the last week of his sophomore year and his knees kept hurting. We thought it was because he was still growing and it’ll pass. It didn’t pass. Someone told us (Monday night) that they hadn’t seen Luke smile so much. Seeing that joy is really cool for us.”

Jolynn Mason grew up as an athlete in Eureka, going by Erickson, helping lead her high school team to the CIF Northern California finals in 1989, a loss to powerhouse Grant. She played volleyball at Sonoma State, but otherwise this is a basketball family.

Her father, Julian Erickson, coached for decades, including at Humboldt State. Another brother, Mike Erickson, has had a 30-plus-year career coaching Piner High in Santa Rosa, and another, Doug Erickson, works with the UCLA program. The best player of the brotherly lot, Alan Erickson, competed at Humboldt State and played professionally overseas.

“That’s who Luke’s game reminds me of — Alan,” Jolynn said.

Jolynn approaches each Rio Americano game the same way.

“I go in mellow, but when the game gets tight, I’m nervous,” she said. “We think this is all gravy because we just wanted Luke to be able to play, and then the game gets tight and my stomach feels it.”

In other words, a good sense of anxiety for all the right reasons.