Mason Cooper is up before dawn and off to the gym. Throughout the day, he’s careful about what he eats, making sure he gets the fuel he needs to get through the school day and practice. He arrives early to that practice.

The payoff for all of this came in games, as anybody who watched Lawrence High School boys basketball over the last few seasons can attest.

“I just had a passion for the game of basketball as long as I can remember. My dad, pretty much from day one, put the ball in my hands,” Cooper said. “I just loved it, and I loved playing it. If I want to play the game I love, I might as well work at it and get as good as I can.”

Cooper led the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A in scoring, with 24.2 points per game, and averaged 8.6 rebounds, earning conference Player of the Year. Cooper also was a semifinalist for Mr. Maine Basketball, and scored his 1,000th career point. Cooper was the leader a young, inexperienced Lawrence team needed.

For all his accomplishments, Mason Cooper is the Morning Sentinel Boys Basketball Player of the Year. Nate Violette of Messalonskee was also considered.

“Mason’s a guy who absolutely loves the game of basketball. He’s never satisfied with his own game. He always wants to get better,” Lawrence coach Jason Pellerin said. “He’s a gym rat, and has been for as long as I’ve known him. I’ve known Mason since he was 4 years old. The amount of time he’s put into nutrition and his body. He’s become a fitness nut.”

Cooper was a four-year varsity player, but it wasn’t until the summer between his sophomore and junior years he decided he needed to make changes to his life. Troy Trimble was Lawrence’s freshman basketball coach and a physical education teacher at Lawrence Middle School at the time. Trimble told Cooper the key to becoming a better basketball player was simple. He had to get stronger.

“(Trimble) said to me ‘You’re too skinny to handle contact.’Every day after school, he almost obligated me to lift weights. I started to enjoy the being sore and starting to see myself develop,” Cooper said.

By the time his junior season began, Cooper had lost 20 pounds and added the muscle needed to take on contact in the paint. That added a slashing, attacking dimension to his game that made Cooper even tougher to defend.

“Out of state in AAU, you don’t get any calls. It’s such a different way to play. Every time I went to the rim my junior year, I didn’t expect to get a call because I was so used to that contact that summer,” Cooper said. “Refs started to realize I was really aggressive. I was able to finish with contact. That allowed me to get to the line. I always worked on my free throws. They’re free points.”

What made Cooper difficult to defend was his ability to shape his game to whatever the opponent’s defense gave him. If an opponent tried to seal off his drives to the basket, Cooper shot from the perimeter. If they played tight defense outside, he’d go past them and attack.

“He had an absolutely incredible year,” Messalonskee coach Peter McLaughlin, who saw Cooper score 33 points against his Eagles on Jan. 12, a hard-fought 61-55 Messalonskee win. That game, Cooper often brought the ball up the court as Lawrence’s point guard, giving the Eagles and unexpected look. “No matter what a defense tried to do to him, he was going to find a way to control the game.”

Cooper started paying more attention to his diet. Cooper did online research, studying what foods would help him perform at his best.

“My mom likes to eat healthy, so it was really easy. It became something I really love, so when I go to college, I’m going into exercise science and nutrition,” Cooper said. “I usually try to eat four or five meals per day. Get a lot of calories, because I’m burning it practicing and lifting in the morning… I’m skinny as it is, and I have to eat a lot.”

As a junior, Cooper was the only non-senior in Lawrence’s starting five, and the Bulldogs advanced to the Class A North quarterfinals. This season, as the only returning starter, Cooper knew he’d receive the bulk of the defensive attention every game. While his teammates were green when it came to varsity experience, Cooper had to make sure they were confident.

“He would upfake in the paint to create a shot, or make the dumpoff or kickout pass. He was always trying to do more. ‘Coach, what can I do?’ He was always trying to help us win,” Pellerin said. “He was very encouraging during drills. He was hurt, he had a bad ankle at the start of the season, then a problem with his back. He just played through it. When he wasn’t able to practice, he was very encouraging.”

In practice, Cooper focused on passing the ball. If the Bulldogs nailed open shots in practice, they’d be more confident in shooting in games.

“The first tryout, I don’t think I stopped talking the entire practice. Just because I wanted these guys to know from the beginning I had confidence in them and I trusted them. If I drive the lane and somebody’s open in the corner, I’ll pass the ball and he’ll make it,” Cooper said. “Me and Coach Pellerin had long talks about it. Being positive was the most important thing all year. There was not a single day I didn’t want to go to practice.”

Added Pellerin: “I’m pretty pleased with the maturity he showed during the season.”

Lawrence went 4-14 and missed the playoffs, but Cooper said he expects the Bulldogs to improve next season.

“We played nine deep, probably every game. A lot of guys have experience. I’m waiting to see who steps up as The Guy,” Cooper said.

Two years ago, Cooper developed a friendship with then-Messalonskee senior Nick Mayo, arguably the best high school basketball player in the state that year. Cooper contacted Mayo on social media, and asked if they could work out together.

“This guy is the best player in the state, one of the best in New England. I was like, I want to be the best, I’ve got to practice with somebody who is at that level,” Cooper said.

This past year, Mayo showed his coaches at Eastern Kentucky University Cooper’s highlight video. That was enough to earn Cooper an invitation to walk-on at the Division I school. Cooper said he hasn’t made up his mind about college plans yet, but is leaning towards accepting the offer to join Mayo with the Colonels. He plans to visit Eastern Kentucky over April vacation. Among the other schools Cooper is considering are the University of Maine, Northeastern, Springfield, and Plymouth State.

“It meant a lot to get that call saying hey, we want you on your team. I’ve always wanted to travel and get out of Central Maine. (Eastern Kentucky’s) probably the school I’m leaning to the most,” Cooper said.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

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Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM