LEXINGTON – It’s a phone call a college coach never wants to receive from a No. 1 recruit, the kind that has you picking your jaw off the floor.
That’s why Butler University men’s tennis coach Parker Ross remembers the stunning news from Mason Dragos in late March as if it were yesterday.
Hey coach, I just wanted you to know I’ve been in an accident.
“The first thing in my head was a car accident; that was my initial thought,” Ross said. “The second thing I thought was that he was goofing around with some friends and broke a bone, which is bad, too.”
There’s bad and then there’s impossible-to-comprehend bad. Dragos, just beginning his final season for Lexington, was calling about the latter.
Dragos told Ross about how he was spending what he thought was an uneventful Saturday (March 14) with a friend and how they met up with some other people at a local establishment to have some late-night pizza when a handgun sitting on a counter accidentally went off.
Dragos, seated at the counter, was wounded when the bullet ricocheted off the granite counter and hit him in the chest.
Initially, the southpaw tennis star was worried more about his left hand and arm, which got hit when the bullet sprayed pieces of granite from the countertop and shards of glass from drinks sitting on the counter.
“I was walking away because my ears were ringing so bad,” Dragos said. “My hand was shooting blood. It squirted me in the face immediately. All I was scared about was my hand because it went numb. Then I noticed that my shirt got all bloodied. That’s when I knew …”
Dragos initially felt a burning sensation in his chest, but it was masked by the throbbing pain in his hand — the dominant hand he used in turning himself into one of the top tennis talents in Ohio.
“It looked like it went through a blender,” Dragos said. “I was laying on the floor waiting for the ambulance, pulling granite out of my hand. It was disgusting.”
When his parents got to the hospital, Mason was still in the ambulance. From there he was taken inside for tests and to get his wounds cleaned and stitched.
“For a good hour and a half, we sat there, though, thinking, ‘He’s dying,’” Jill Dragos, Mason’s mom, said. “I just paced the (waiting room) floor. I couldn’t sit down. It wasn’t until after midnight we were told he was going to be fine.”
The only thing in serious peril was Mason Dragos’ bid for a state tennis championship.
A remarkably fast recovery
The case involving the incident is still working its way through legal channels. Fortunately for the Lex tennis program, Dragos’ recovery from his wounds proceeded faster than the wheels of justice.
Looking at him on a tennis court now or even lounging on a couch at home speaking with a reporter, you’d never know Dragos has a bullet in his chest. To remove it would require open-heart surgery, it’s lodged that close to vital organs.
“One centimeter from his heart,” John Dragos, Mason’s dad, said. “The bullet went through his diaphragm, then his lung and embedded in his liver. The upper lobe of your liver about touches your heart, so that bullet is that close.”
His son has been in plenty of close tennis matches in his career, but it’s hard to really put “close” in perspective until something like this happens.
“It sounds like he got very, very lucky with everything, but did I expect him to be playing at a high level right after that? No way,” Ross said from Indianapolis, where Butler competes as a member of the Big East Conference.
“But it didn’t surprise me because Mason is a really talented player who seemed like the type who could pick up where he left off. He doesn’t need many hours on the practice court for his type of game.”
Before the incident, John Dragos had supreme confidence in his son, coming off a third-place finish in the 2014 Ohio High School Athletic Association state tournament.
“Going into the season, before the accident, I thought Mason was going to win the state championship, just because he had been playing well,” John Dragos said. “I spent all winter with him at USTA (United States Tennis Association) tournaments. He doesn’t play as many USTA tournaments as a lot of kids, but he plays the big ones and he’s typically there ’till the last day.
“He’s playing top level competition, beating players who are higher-ranked than him, and they’re higher-ranked because they’ve played more tournaments and picked up more points (toward their ranking).”
But even John Dragos’ faith was tested after the freak shooting.
“At that point,” he said, “we’re just hoping he’d make state.”
Dragos didn’t pick up a racket for three weeks after his overnight stay in the hospital and was in and out of Lex’s lineup for a few weeks after that before deciding to have surgery on his left hand. He hoped it would repair nerve damage in his ring finger.
The finger remains numb down to the knuckle.
“(Doctors) thought taking the scar tissue out around the nerve would help, but it hasn’t,” he said. “They say if (feeling) doesn’t come back after a year, it probably won’t come back.”
Dragos had already proven he could deal with it, knocking off some top-shelf players during Lexington’s annual trek to Louisville, Kentucky for a big invitational. If anything, his success convinced him to have the surgery.
“I just couldn’t get used to the finger and said ‘I can’t deal with this,’” he said. “So we talked to a specialist and decided to do the surgery so I wouldn’t think about it. But it hasn’t helped it all.”
You wouldn’t know it by the way Dragos played. He came back in time to win No. 1 singles in the Ohio Cardinal Conference for the fourth time — a feat matched in Lex’s storied history only by immediate predecessor Nicky Wong — and then steamrolled his way through the sectional and district tournaments.
Dragos lost only two games in four matches in becoming the school’s first four-time district singles champion.
Suddenly, it seemed like a run at a Division II state championship was back on the table, even though it would mean going through two-time defending champ Asher Hirsch of Cincinnati Country Day — the 15th-ranked player in the country, headed to play for reigning Big Ten champion Illinois.
Becoming a Butler Bulldog
When Ross debated giving Dragos a full scholarship to Butler — Division I tennis programs only have 4.5 to give and usually break up their allotment among several players — Lex coach Ron Schaub vouched for Dragos’ talent, maturity and character.
Then he gets shot.
“Total disbelief,” Schaub said about the phone call he got from Jill Dragos the next morning. “He’s not a trouble-maker. I’ve known him since fourth grade. He’s the greatest with that kind of stuff.
“But, whoa, anytime a bullet is in you, your system is messed up. Never once during the season did he complain, never once did he make an excuse. Never once did he say, ‘Oh, crap, I can’t feel my finger.’ He played through it the whole time.”
Ross, who went ahead and gave Dragos a full-ride last November, never second-guessed his decision.
“I knew it wasn’t one of those situations where he was hanging around with the wrong kids or participating in violent things,” Ross said. “Fortunately he was OK because that’s not what you want to hear when you’re a head coach and you hear that your top recruit got shot.”
Ross began recruiting Dragos as a sophomore when he saw him play in a big USTA tournament in Indianapolis. But they didn’t meet for the first time until last summer when Dragos used another tourney in Indy as an excuse to visit the campus.
“We got along right away,” Ross said. “I liked his energy, his attitude. I could tell he was a smart kid, definitely a leader-type. He appreciated my energy and integrity. We hit it off right away.”
Still, any college tennis coach has to be careful about granting a full ride to one player since there are so few scholarships to go around.
“I guess you could say, on paper, it was a gamble to give him a full ride because his (USTA) ranking and results don’t normally justify that,” Ross said. “But I’ve got a good eye for those type of kids and I think his upside is huge.
“Butler’s an expensive school and if I wanted to get a kid like this I had to put together a package that was enticing enough for him, so I definitely made the decision to pull the trigger. Typically, those scholarships are reserved for guys who come in and play No. 1 right away. I think Mason can play at the top of the lineup. As a freshman it’s very hard to do and I don’t expect him to come in Day 1 and be ranked in the nation, but I definitely feel down the line he could be a really, really good player, especially being around other good players 20 hours a week.”
Dragos didn’t exactly slip through the cracks to Butler. National power Ohio State, according to Schaub (whose daughter Melissa is head women’s coach of the Buckeyes), wanted him but couldn’t offer as good a package as Butler.
“He’s done as well as he can do with the competition around Lexington,” Ross said. “It’s no secret he’s got a good coach out there (in Schaub), but he doesn’t have a lot of guys to hit with and doesn’t play a lot of tournaments. So that’s why I say he’s got a big upside. He’s going to make a huge jump in college.
“If he’s in a bigger city (where there’s more players) and he’s playing as many tournaments as an Asher Hirsch, I don’t even think he considers coming to Butler because he’s getting big-time offers. That’s how good I think he is. He was under the radar and Butler typically looks for guys like that.
“As a coach you obviously want the sure thing, but I love bringing in kids with talent and seeing what you can build with that. I think Mason’s going to be a really fun project to work with, for sure.”
An unlikely champion
If the state tennis tournament seeded players, Dragos and Hirsch would have been placed in opposite halves. Instead, their anticipated showdown — the de facto title match — took place in the semifinals.
They had met four times, either in high school or on the USTA circuit, with each winning twice. Their rubber match started out like Dragos would get bounced quickly.
He was down 1-6, 0-2 when momentum took a dramatic turn and his story became even more improbable.
Dragos would rally to win the second set 7-5. Then, after digging an 0-2 hole again in the third, he reeled off the next six games to seal the stirring comeback and reach the finals, where he easily disposed of Columbus Academy’s Jacob Wareti 6-3, 6-2 to become the first boy in Lex’s rich tennis history to win a state title.
A mere 11 weeks after getting shot.
“I played really loose tennis,” he said, “and I knew I could beat (Hirsch).”
Even when he fell behind quickly again in the third set, Dragos never lacked confidence.
“The reason I was down 0-2 in that set was the balls were fresh and that helped him a lot,” he said. “(Hirsch) hits a flat ball and when the fibers are broken up, the ball catches the court and jumps higher (instead of skipping). By the time the balls are worn in, they’re jumping real high and he’s losing a lot of his power. That’s why he got an early jump.”
Schaub offered what he thought was a better explanation for Dragos’ milestone win.
“He’s so capable of slaying giants with his game,” Schaub said. “By the end, he was playing phenomenal. I’ll bet Asher Hirsch has never lost six straight games in his life. But by the end of the match Mason was ripping groundstrokes. It was a classic.”
Fans could see the bullets flying from Dragos’ racket down the stretch against Hirsch. It was the one in his chest, perceptible only by X-ray, that made Mason’s three-month journey to the top so utterly amazing.
“Win or lose, I wasn’t hanging on the results,” Ross said. “I didn’t care one way or another, but I was ultimately really happy he won because it showed he had the resilience to do that.
“To come back from a really crazy situation for a high school kid, to go through all the medical stuff and legal stuff, his family … it’s tough to try to go through your senior year when you’re graduating, so for him to bounce back and win state is pretty incredible.”
Dragos texted Ross with news about the state title. It went much better than that phone call in March.
“My initial reaction was that ESPN should pick this story up; that’s how amazing I think it is,” Ross said. “You see these stories (done) by (ESPN personality) Tom Rinaldi, or E:60 … this is one of those type of stories.”
For Dragos, the title didn’t really sink in until a couple of weeks later on a trip to the family lake house in Huron. Dan Hadam, a friend, had a metal commemorative sign made, like those often seen entering a town, and tacked it to a nearby telephone pole. It reads: Welcome to HURON, OHIO Summer Home of MASON J. DRAGOS 2015 State Tennis Champion.
Another sign congratulating Dragos for winning his state title hangs on the door outside Lakewood Racquet Club. That’s where it all began for him as a fourth grader under Schaub’s mentorship.
“It’s the weirdest thing,” Schaub said. “So many people came up to me down at the club (after the shooting) and said ‘You watch, Ron, something good is going to come out of this. You’ll see.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, right. The kid can barely hang onto his racket, his hand is filled with glass and marble and bleeding all the time.’And they’re like, ‘You’ll see.’
“Sure enough …”
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