VIBORG, S.D. — Chase Mason parked his red Kia in the icy lot. Wearing a black Patagonia coat, shorts and running shoes, he crunched through the snow on the same cement path he has walked much of his life.
This was a Monday in March, another winter-weather day for Viborg-Hurley — a co-op high school tucked in the southeast corner of South Dakota — and a quieter afternoon than usual for the community of 786 people. Mason strode through the front entrance of the dark building with no one around to greet him.
All around are reminders of Mason’s past as a big fish in the smallest of ponds. In the weight room, where he ranks in the school’s all-time top three in lifts. In the trophy case, where his state gold in the triple jump and three relays helped V-H win a track title in 2019. Football championship hardware from the same year commemorates a season in which Mason, the star quarterback, accounted for 55 total touchdowns as a junior.
Absent, however, are clues of Mason’s future. Viborg-Hurley doesn’t have a baseball team, and a modest diamond adjacent to an oval dirt track surrounding the 80-yard football field mostly goes unused. A 40-minute drive to Harrisburg is what it takes to hit and pitch.
Mason made one big decision last November when he committed to coach Will Bolt and Nebraska baseball, turning down FBS football offers and attention from other college baseball powers to join NU’s loaded 2021 class. Another life-changing choice is coming this week.
Will he turn pro or end up a Husker?
“The only reason I would go (pro) is just everything working out perfectly,” Mason said. “It’s just super crazy to think about if that side of things works out. But just super excited for Nebraska right now.”
Scouts call him "Roy Hobbs" — a nod to the fictional character from "The Natural" — because of his prodigious power and top-shelf speed. The 18-year-old outfielder is the No. 200 overall prep player in his class, according to Perfect Game, and MLB.com pegs him No. 249 among MLB draft prospects. The draft runs Sunday through Tuesday.
Getting Mason (6-foot-5, 215 pounds) to Lincoln would likely provide Big Red with an impact bat for the next three years.
Nebraska has signed 10 other hitters among Perfect Game’s top 200 since the service began rankings in 2006. Five went pro out of high school, including Olympian Bubba Starling (2011 class) and recent major-leaguer Monte Harrison (2014). Of the other five, four enjoyed standout Nebraska careers including Kash Kalkowski (2008), Ryan Boldt (2013), Luis Alvarado (2014) and Spencer Schwellenbach (2018).
Mason lingered in relative anonymity as long as any of them. A high school position player from South Dakota hasn’t been drafted in two decades, and Mason only began touring the showcase circuit a couple years ago. The pandemic further limited his exposure.
Kris Regas, director of player development with the Harrisburg program, said watching Mason do a simple high-knees warmup drill convinced him the small-town kid was physically on another level. Pitching is an “afterthought” for most evaluators, but Mason sits in the low 90s with his fastball to go with a lively slider and curveball.
The big thing is the power. Mason has lots of it.
“I think he is the most physically talented player I’ve been around at any level,” said Regas, who spent more than 15 years in pro ball. “I can only think of two guys I played with that had power similar to his, and neither of them ran a sub-11-second 100-yard dash.”
Mason throws right-handed and swings left — a combination pro scouts love — while regularly producing fireworks at the plate.
Harrisburg has technology that tracks home-run distances. While most players are thrilled with an occasional 400-foot shot, Mason routinely connects for shots between 450 and 470 feet. In a game last summer, Regas tracked down a ball hit off a wooden bat that landed more than 500 feet away.
Regas began telling friends and contacts last year he believes Mason will eventually be a top three-round draft pick, especially if he develops at Nebraska for a few years first.
“The looks I got and the responses I got, it was like I said I saw Bigfoot the other day,” Regas said. “Chase was completely off the map.”
Not anymore. Mason was among roughly 200 prep/college participants in the MLB predraft combine last month, and he hit four homers in six pitches during a batting-practice session. The MLB.com scouting report describes his potential as a 25-homer, 25-steals player.
But the breakdown also details “an unrefined approach and severe swing-and-miss questions” for someone who hit below .300 in local Legion play last summer. Mason calls himself “raw,” a multi-sport athlete who has focused on baseball for only a few months every year and never faced quality opponents until joining Harrisburg.
“People are going to recognize you if you have the talent,” Mason said. “But you still need to see competition.”
His breakout came at a regional showcase when he smacked a ground-rule double off a fastball from hard-throwing Nebraska signee C.J. Hood of Norris. That weekend Mason also met right-handed pitcher Drew Christo — the headliner of NU's class — in an encounter that helped him choose the Huskers over finalists Missouri and Wichita State.
Mason got his first college looks in football after accounting for 416 yards and six touchdowns in the Class 9AA title game in 2019. South Dakota State, South Dakota, Fresno State and Wyoming offered him as a quarterback. Kansas State talked with him about coming as a tight end.
“I felt the best playing baseball,” Mason said. “I just wanted to see how far I could go in baseball and ultimately felt like it was the right thing to do. It came down to knowing I could enjoy baseball every single day.”
Adversity hit last fall in football during the first quarter of the second game. A cornerback came at Mason on a designed run play and connected just as he planted to spin. The result was an ACL injury that ended his year and replaced basketball season with regular trips to Sioux Falls for physical therapy.
He recovered this spring and placed third at state track in the 100-meter dash (11.12 seconds) and second in the 200 (22.06).
Mason can’t sprint toward what’s next until after the draft. He has a financial figure in mind — he prefers to keep it private — and may not be selected at all if teams aren’t willing to meet it. He jokes that if sports don’t pan out, he can always get a job at Scheels, where both his parents work.
But that would be a surprise to anyone who’s seen him play. The tiny community known for “Danish Days” may soon have another claim to fame.
“You never really know where it’s going to take you,” Mason said. “Especially as raw as I am with baseball.”