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Mason gets her kicks at SOU

Freshman sparks first year program

ASHLAND — To hear Tiffany Mason talk about her love for soccer is akin to eavesdropping on someone stranded in the desert crying out for water.

Mason's every pore exists to play soccer. It's almost a necessary ingredient to her survival: food, water, soccer.

The former South Medford High standout fittingly was the first Southern Oregon University player to score in intercollegiate competition.

That goal also happened to be the game-winner as Mason led the first-year Raider women's soccer program to its inaugural victory on Sept. 7 against Southern Indiana.

She has since solidified her role as the team's leading scorer, notching seven goals in 10 games.

So when Mason was forced to miss a few weeks of action recently following throat surgery, the freshman didn't take the sabbatical all that well.

I wanted to be there the following Monday after surgery, the 5-foot-6 forward recounts. That was the hardest thing I've ever done because I knew my spark was just starting to fly.

Every game they had without me I was jittery and couldn't sleep, she adds. I was always on the phone with them asking, ?Did we win? Did we win??

Prior to surgery, Mason was coming off the kind of week most players dream about. She scored five goals and had two assists in Raider victories over Oregon Tech and Evergreen State.

For her efforts in that first week of October, Mason became SOU's second Cascade Conference player of the week and first NAIA Region I player of the week.

That Mason even had an opportunity to set such milestones near her hometown is a testament to SOU coach Jose Chavez.

After posting a 31-8-3 record as the head boys soccer coach at Rogue River High from 1990-92, Chavez turned his attention to the collegiate level in 1996.

Chavez guided the SOU men's club team from 1996-98 and then turned his attention to the women's club team.

It was his steady leadership and ability to create enthusiasm for a women's collegiate program that got the ball rolling for the 2000 season.

Even with that enthusiasm, Chavez wasn't sure what he would have waiting for him in Ashland after accepting a side job as assistant coach for the Houston Hurricanes.

The professional-level experience did wonders for Chavez as a coach, but his concerns were realized when he returned to the SOU campus. Five players penciled in to start the 2000 campaign decided against joining the team.

As the season drew nearer, the prospects weren't looking much better.

There was a point right when we started the preseason in August where I had a roster of about 12 people and I said to myself, ?I don't even know if this is enough to have a program,? Chavez says.

The coach immediately took to the phones, dialing up anyone he could remember that had expressed interest in the SOU program.

Truth be known, Chavez really was unable to do much recruiting heading into the 2000 season. Some players were given a chance simply off a videotape of them displaying their skills.

Others like junior Anne Endrikat and senior Monica Doshier were holdovers from the club team. When College of the Siskiyous disbanded its program, SOU inherited former Ashland High star Kirsten McNaught and Phoenix High's Brie King.

Tiffany is probably the only player this year that we went out looking for her, Chavez says of his limited recruiting. But we only did that because she actually expressed her interest in coming to us.

Chavez watched Mason put her hard-nosed, goal-scoring skills to work for the Panthers late last season and knew she would be a fine fit for SOU.

I needed a goal-scorer as good as Tiffany, and I really feel fortunate that Tiffany expressed an interest in our program, says the coach.

I knew she was going to work her hardest when she came to us. I had no expectations, all I wanted was for her to try her hardest. And that has created the results, basically.

With a fledgling program like women's soccer, Chavez wasn't able to offer Mason or any of the others the type of scholarship money he feels they deserve.

He was, however, able to offer them all an opportunity to play soccer in Southern Oregon.

That was enough for Mason, who faced the dilemma of potentially riding the bench at the Division I level or making an immediate impact at SOU.

I wasn't willing to sit the bench, says the 18-year-old. I love soccer too much. In my heart I think I could have played on any team out there, it's just that as a player I'd rather have fun and not be owned in a place where I'm not appreciated.

Mason says it was especially enticing to continue her soccer career in Southern Oregon.

Southern Oregon has always had a rep of being really good (at soccer), especially in the SOC, she says, it's just that you never had a university down here. I just wanted to come in here and be a leader as a freshman and really show the valley what this university can do for all of us.

In doing so, Mason and crew have been able to show that a first-year program can be a legitimate Cascade Conference title contender.

SOU (5-7, 4-4 league) has qualified for the playoffs despite Mason's three-game absence, and the Raiders have shown an ability to contend each time out on the field.

We don't give up, says Mason. We have a lot of heart on this team and we're willing to work to make our skills better, and that's what it takes to be better. Everyone on this team is that way.

All may have the heart, but few can match Mason's tenacity.

She admits to being loud out on the playing field, and often stern in her communication with teammates and the opposition.

She wants the ball — — practically the ball.

The thrill of scoring just gets me, Mason confides. Goal-scoring is a feeling you can't describe. It's like an adrenaline, tingly kind of feeling inside. It keeps me going because I love the rush.

That thrill is only heightened when she knows the other team has already targeted her as a scoring threat.

It makes you want to rub it in their face even more, she says with a wry smile.

Even with the thrill of scoring imbedded in her system, Mason knows when to turn it on and when to use the occasional double-team to her advantage.

It's to my advantage for them to bring as many people as they want on me, because that just gives me open players to pass it to, she says.

Those assists, however, pale in comparison to the one the SOU program has given to a teenager uninterested in finding fortune far away from home.

Just making it this far shows me I made the right choice, says Mason. I'm having fun, I'm happy and I'm making an impact at a young age. A lot of people are looking up to the freshman and that just helps me know my decision was the right one.

Her decision is also one that may pay off well beyond her years judging by the interest Mason and her teammates have helped spur along at SOU.

A lot of people are already expressing interest (for next year) from as far away as Norway, says Chavez.

Hopefully next year we can get a bigger budget so we can offer more scholarships to keep the local talent here, just like Tiffany.

Reach reporter at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com

needs - photo by Drew Fleming