Altoona grad shines at NCAA baseball program

About the same time Mason Hershey started having success at the NCAA Division I level of college baseball, East Tennessee State began a big turnaround.

When the season was over, Hershey and the Buccaneers were both champions.

The Altoona graduate increased his batting average 87 points and his on-base percentage 90 points from his junior year to his senior year and East Tennessee State improved from a 23-32 finish in 2012 to 36-24 this past season.

The Buccaneers also won their first Atlantic Sun Conference championship and qualified for the NCAA Super Regional, which can get you a trip to the College World Series.

“That was a big step [to win the Atlantic Sun], especially because of our preseason rank of seventh in the conference,” Hershey said. “We finished the regular season fourth overall before we swept the whole conference in the playoffs.

“We had a ton of confidence as a team, and it was great to bring history to ETSU. It meant a lot.”

Hershey finished the year hitting .269 with 11 doubles, a triple, three home runs, 21 RBIs and an on-base percentage of .360.

“Individually I’d say I’m not satisfied, but I’m not upset,” Hershey said. “I’m glad we could turn the baseball team around my senior year. I’ll take that away from my college career. Stat lines don’t say much, because you can make a loud out and it doesn’t look good on your average.”

East Tennessee State coach Tony Skole said Hershey’s most important contributions didn’t come from numbers, anyway.

“We recruited him from Potomac State, and from the time he came here, his improvement was tremendous,” said Skole, who plucked Hershey from the junior college Potomac State after Hershey’s sophomore year. “He really turned himself into a really good Division I catcher. He can block, throw and he’s very athletic. We got him in here late, we wished we could have had him for four years, but it ended up being a great fit. More than anything else he was a great leader.”

Hershey’s leadership from the catcher position was needed as the Bucs used several young pitchers throughout the season.

“We relied on a lot of freshmen arms as a pitching staff because we weren’t returning many guys,” Hershey said. “Having the experience, I was able to talk to those pitchers and tell them it’s still baseball, nothing has changed. You have to let them know they’ll be needed and keep doing what they did.”

The Altoona graduate also played in 57 of the Bucs’ 60 games – all at the catcher position.

“Mason meant a lot to our ballclub this past year with his toughness,” Skole said. “He takes a lot of pride in staying in shape, he’s extremely flexible, works hard in the weight room and he’s a great defender. We needed him to play a lot of games, and he was simply a workhorse behind the plate. His mindset was that he wanted to catch every game.”

East Tennessee State’s appearance in the College World Series was brief. The Bucs lost their first two games after qualifying as one of the top 64 teams in college baseball.

“It was nice to go out there, but it would have been better to win a game,” Hershey said. “It was fun to be able to play in an SEC stadium where fans are a big part of the game. Friday night [against Vanderbilt] it took over the game. I wasn’t able to direct the infield, and they couldn’t hear, but it was fun.”

Despite the losses, Skole was happy with the chance to compete in the tournament.

“It was a huge goal to win the conference, and we hadn’t won a championship in over 30 years,” Skole said. “All of our seniors played at an extremely high level. Those guys changed our program forever. I know it’s going to be a season they never forget.”

Hershey, who graduated from ETSU with a degree in sports management, had plenty of highlights in his senior year.

ETSU won in its last at-bat in each of its first three games in the Atlantic Sun tournament, and Hershey scored the game-winning run in a 4-3 semifinal triumph over USC Upstate. A week earlier, Hershey hit a walk-off double in a 3-2 win over Jacksonville.

The Bucs also took two of three games from Penn State to open the season, and Hershey hit a home run in his first at bat of the year.

“Our in-state rival was Tennessee, so I stressed to them that Penn State was my Tennessee to them,” Hershey said. “I told them how bad I wanted to beat them, and going out and winning two of three from them was pretty fun.”

Hershey was not drafted during the MLB draft this past weekend, but he isn’t ruling out a career in professional baseball.

“I’ve spoken with a few teams in the majors, but right now it’s out of my hands,” Hershey said. “They have come and seen multiple games, and it’s more of a waiting game. If it happens, I’ll definitely be excited and take that up, but I could also play independent ball.”