Feb. 26, 2004
By Jason Hickman
Bill Ayears indoor school record in the long jump stood safely for 16 years at Washington State.
Only once was Ayears' mark of 25-9 approached, that was in 2001 when Benson Jones flew 25-4 in the rarified air of Flagstaff, Ariz. But after 16 long years of standing alone at the top, Ayears' name was bounced when WSU junior Matt Mason rewrote the record books in the event just over a month after stepping foot in Pullman.
Mason, a native of Marietta, Ga., took a long and indirect route to Pullman with stops at Florida State and Long Beach City College, but his impact on the Cougar Track & Field program is being felt immediately.
"That was my goal for that meet," Mason said of his Feb. 14 jump at the Pac-10 Invitational Track & Field Meet in Seattle. "I was supposed to stop early. I had a couple of long fouls and I knew I could break the school record if I didn't foul. It felt good. I expected to do it at some point in the season."
Mason's talents extend far beyond the long jump. In fact, it's not even his favorite event. As a freshman at Florida State, he captured the Atlantic Coast Conference title in the 400 meter hurdles and qualified for the NCAA Championships. Mason's true love is for the short hurdles, the 60 meters indoor and 110 meters outdoor.
A week before breaking the indoor record in the long jump, Mason displayed his ability in the 60m hurdles, blazing to a time of 7.80 seconds, an NCAA provisional qualifying time. He could eventually challenge Kip Ngeno's school record of 7.69, set in 1975.
"I've been doing the hurdles since I was 12," Mason said. "It's something that I enjoy and something that comes natural to me."
Mason's athletic talents aren't limited to track & field. At McEachern High School in Georgia, he racked up nine varsity letters, with three coming in football and two in basketball. He was offered scholarships for all three sports and even had a short stint with Bobby Bowden's Seminole football squad at Florida State.
Much of that talent was nurtured by competing with family members. His father, Bernard, played basketball at Southern Illinois, while his sister, Kim, ran track at Pennsylvania. Mason also has a brother, Hassaan, who ran at Tennessee.
"Since I was about 10 years old we have been competing against each other. I went against my sister, she was the state champion in the long jump," Mason said. "We have a five-year gap, so she used to beat me every once in a while. Once I got into high school, it was always my brother. I never beat him in high school, so that helped me out to always try harder and do my best."
Mason is confident that no member of his family can compete with him these days. Not many people can. His indoor mark in the long jump stands at fourth nationally, while his 60m hurdles time is eighth-best in the country.
"After being here a week or two in January, the first time we saw him do something in practice, it was clear that he was one of the biggest talents we have ever seen," WSU assistant coach Mark Macdonald said. "To see him in practice, he is so fast and so explosive. It is really fun to be around."
Head Coach Rick Sloan and Macdonald tried to bring Mason to Washington State out of high school.
"I thought about coming here. It came down to Florida State or Washington State," Mason said. "I ended up going to Florida State then transferred to Long Beach City College. I saw Coach Macdonald at the USATF Outdoor and that led to me coming back to Pullman."
Despite a dramatic change in latitude, Mason is enjoying being in Pullman and being a Cougar.
"The snow is actually kind of nice. I will take the snow over rain any day," Mason said. "I like the program here. It is more team-oriented. Coach Sloan and Coach Mac are great."
Outside of his athletic pursuits, Mason is busy "hitting the books" and preparing to declare a major in either sociology or anthropology.
Mason's talents have taken him from Florida to California to Washington, and even across the Atlantic for a month in England while competing in the 2001 World Junior Championships. He hopes the next step will be writing his own ticket to the Olympics. That could come as early as this summer in Athens, Greece, or in 2008 when the Games will be held in China.
"It will be interesting to see where he ends up because there are so many things he can do," Macdonald said. "On paper, the 400m hurdles are where he has had most of his national success, but right now he looks really good in the long jump. When we get outdoors, we will see where he wants to put his energy. In the Pac-10 he can do all three and the relay, but eventually he will have to pick maybe one or two events."
"There have been a lot of good athletes to go through Washington State," Mason said. "That makes me feel good that Coach Sloan and Coach Mac feel so highly about me. Hopefully I can live up to it."
If he does live up to it, Cougars may have a rooting interest in the Olympics for years to come.