Redhawks senior growing into leadership role
by Aaron Garcia
Winning simply isn’t good enough. Not for Mason Sledge. Not after being a starter for Monroe since his sophomore season, when the Redhawks went 12-1.
Take, for example, last week’s season-opening loss against Porter Ridge.
“He didn’t have a great game,” said Monroe coach Johnny Sowell. “He graded out as the winner; we grade each player (after each game), but it wasn’t that great of a game.”
You see, Sledge, who stands 6 foot 4 and weighs 250 pounds, is held to a higher standard, partly because of his ability, but also because this year, he’s the Redhawks anchor on both the offensive and defensive lines.
“He’s definitely our leader,” Sowell said. “People don’t know this: on our offensive side of the ball, Mason’s our senior. We’ve got another senior playing on the offensive line, but he’s a first-year senior – he didn’t play last year at all.
“Technically, he’s the only senior we have on offense,” Sowell continued. “On defense, you’ve got him and (one other player). Technically, that’s it.”
It’s a role Sledge is having fun with so far, even if it’s a departure from the role he took as the only sophomore starting along Monroe’s offensive line two years ago. At first, it was easier to stand back and let the veterans lead the way.
“I felt that way a little bit, but I tried to get in there a little bit and lead, show what I can bring to the team,” he recalled.
Mason actually started playing when he was six when he lined up for the Union County Buccaneers. Back then he was a tight end and linebacker.
“I liked (playing those positions) a lot,” he said.
In sixth grade, he made the middle school team at Parkwood before being moved to Sun Valley in seventh grade because of the county’s redistricting. While with the Spartans, Sledge was moved to the lines. After ninth grade, Sledge was again moved, this time to Monroe.
“It was a challenge, but it wasn’t that hard,” Sledge said of the move. “It took me about a month (to get comfortable). (Coach) Sowell made it pretty easy on me.”
And evidently, Sowell was happy to have him as Sledge earned a starting role shortly after joining the team.
“I was surprised when he started me my sophomore year,” Sledge admitted. “I figured coming from another school I’d have to play JV and prove myself, but he trusted me enough to put me in.”
Sowell said it didn’t take long to notice Sledge was willing to put in the work needed to become an effective member of the Redhawks team.
“The work habit was there,” Sowell said. “We have a lot of kids that when they come here, they want to come and he wanted to come.
“When he came here, he already knew a lot of people because his brother was here, so it’s like he was pretty much coming home. I’m glad we got him; he’s a good kid and a good worker.”
But really, Sledge emerged as one of the county’s best linemen last year after then-senior and Monroe captain Eric Horne was sidelined with an injury.
“He really didn’t have that great game until the second or third game (last year),” Sowell said of Sledge, who earned All-Rocky River 1A/2A conference accolades last season. “That’s when he really started smoking, A lot of that was because Eric got hurt and Mason had to step up, and he did.”
“It’s weird,” said Sledge of his new role this year. “I’m used to Big E (Horne) being the leader. There’s a lot on my shoulders. I learned a lot from him. I probably wouldn’t be as good as I am if it weren’t for him. He and I went one-on-one everyday.”
Now, Sledge is hoping his experience helps not only the Redhawks, but himself, as well. Sledge has gotten a good amount of recruiting attention, but no offers have materialized. Many coaches, said Sledge, want to see how the beginning of his season goes. So far he’s received recruiting attention from schools such as Wofford and Furman. His big frame and powerful play certainly helps, but his 3.8 GPA doesn’t hurt, either.
“Right now, they’re just waiting on (video from) my first three games,” he explained. “Then, in October, they’re going to reevaluate all the linemen they’re looking at, and they’ll call me if they want me.”
Sowell said he’s heard positive feedback from college recruiters and said Sledge’s versatility should serve him well.
“Some people at the next level like him on the defensive side, a lot of them like him on the offensive side, but they like him as a center,” Sowell said. “We’re not sure what he’s going to do, but he’s familiar with both sides of the ball.”
His favorite school, Duke, where former teammates Jamison Crowder and Issac Blakeney matriculated to, was interested, but wanted him to gain roughly 40 pounds. The fact that Sledge also is a basketball player at Monroe makes gaining extra weight a chore.
“I think if I didn’t play basketball, I’d probably gain the wrong kind of weight,” he said with a chuckle.
But there’s time for Sledge to grow, especially considering he’s entering his senior year of high school as a 16-year-old, a full year younger than many of his classmates after starting school early.
“I have a couple more years of growing, but I don’t think the bigger schools look at that – they want the big people right now,” he said with a shrug. “At some point it should (help me). (College coaches) could develop me better than the older kids. I can develop more than they can, I think it’ll work out better for me.”
But Sowell would like the entire team to take an active role in getting Sledge to the next level.
“We as a team have to continue stepping up a little bit, too,” Sowell said. “If we as a team continue stepping up like we have in the past, then that’s going to open the doors even more for him because of what he’s done the last couple of years.”
And for that same reason, winning simply isn’t enough. Not for Mason Sledge, or his Monroe team.