Nebraska bowling has put together quite the resume under head coach Bill Straub.
The Huskers have appeared in every NCAA Tournament since its inception in 2003. They’ve won 10 various national championships since 1991.
But none of that was anywhere near Nebraska bowling senior Gazmine Mason’s mind when she pondered the idea of bowling competitively at a young age.
Mason, like most kids growing up, was involved in multiple activities throughout her childhood: dancing, swimming, playing the piano, and basketball. It wasn’t until her family friend and soon-to-be bowling coach Marty Jones mentioned that it was possible to get collegiate scholarships for bowling that she even considered picking up the sport.
“It was so random,” Mason said. “No one in my family bowls either, I’m the only one. I didn’t know that you could (get college scholarships) for that, and neither did my parents, and actually a lot of people don’t know you can do that.”
At eight years old, Mason decided to join a league to test it out and hasn’t stopped since. Mason was on her high school basketball team her freshman and sophomore year of high school, but decided to quit the team to focus solely on bowling.
“I realized that my basketball team wasn’t that good,” Mason said. “I was better at bowling than I was at basketball at the time because I put in more hours and started at a younger age. That’s when things changed.”
The road to a college scholarship wasn’t easy for Maso her home state of Rhode Island, where there’s no high school sanctioned bowling teams like there are in states such as Illinois and Indiana. Instead, Mason participated in various leagues throughout the area.
With her efforts focused on one sport, Mason was able to put together a state-best 225 average her senior year, state championships in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and a Rhode Island Pepsi state title in 2012.
Jones sent out tapes to colleges across the nation and she quickly became one of the nation’s top recruits. She took official visits to Valparaiso, Norfolk State University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Vanderbilt before her visit to Nebraska.
By that time, Mason was tired of missing school and traveling. Going on a visit to Nebraska was not something she wanted to do, but her father insisted she keep her commitment to go.
“So I came to visit, and I was like ‘wow, this is the place for me,’ which is kind of ironic,” Mason said. “Part of it was the stadium, because the stadium is just awesome. The way they treat the athletes here. I felt like I would fit in with my teammates, and I really liked the culture. It was kind of a culture shock, people here are a lot nicer here compared to home.”
Straub said that Lincoln has the ability to sell itself, and she believes that’s exactly what happened when Mason and her parents arrived on campus.
“She’s from Rhode Island, they don’t know Nebraska exists as a state, let alone as a school,” Straub said. “But she came out here with her parents, and her parents figured she could spend four years out here and not have her be endangered by something that’s going on socially in larger cities in general.”
Since Mason decided to join the Nebraska bowling team under Straub, she has accomplished quite a bit. Mason helped the Huskers win a National Championship in 2015, the Huskers’ second in three years.
“That was one of those years that as a team, bowling felt easier,” Mason said. “That was a special year for my teammates and I. Not because we won, but because of the people that we had on the team. I can’t really put it into words, I’m just glad I was able to get a National Championship before I left.”
Straub said that not only was Mason an instrumental part of the team mentally, but compared her size and athletic ability to that of former Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez.
“Pedro’s as big as the pencil I’m holding, but he was extraordinarily good at body movement, management and leverage, and that’s the parallel to what Gazmine does” Straub said. “Gazmine’s not quite as big as my pencil, but she’s extraordinarily powerful by the good use of leverage and she’s got guts galore.”
Winning a national championship is just about the greatest thing a collegiate athlete can accomplish, but Mason exceeded even that. This year, Mason became the first African American to win a Junior Olympic Gold Medal.
— GG Mason (@gmason_10) March 24, 2017
Heading into the Junior Olympics, Mason said she had no idea that something of that historical importance was on the line. It wasn’t until after she had already won that her parents and coaches informed her of what she had just accomplished.
“My dad says sometimes I don’t really understand the significance, because I always want to go out and win more stuff,” Mason said. “I’m just humbled to be able to say that I’m the first one.”
During Mason’s senior season, the Huskers made a return to the 2017 NCAA Tournament, but fell in the national title match to McKendree. Mason came away from her final season with third-team All-America honors for the third straight year.
Looking forward, one thing Mason hopes changes is the popularity surrounding bowling. She says it has gotten better over the years, but that there is still a long way to go.
“I’ve seen some growth, but I’d like to see more,” Mason said. “Even in Lincoln, Nebraska the other day I was at the softball game and people asked me what sport I played. When I said bowling, they were like ‘we have a bowling team?’. So even in Lincoln, people don’t know that we have a bowling team.”
Despite the lack of widespread popularity, with 10 national championships and top recruits like Gazmine Mason coming through the doors, it seems the foundation that Straub has built the Huskers bowling program on is stronger than ever.