Kansas Pregame polled 8-Man coaches earlier this month who voted for the top four seniors they coached against this season. Kansas Pregame staffers then used those votes to develop a Top 8 list of seniors for each division. Check out another Top 8 capsule below, and find the complete list of Top 8 selections, and the honorable mention list, here for 8-Man I and here for 8-Man II.
Despite not seeing the team success last fall they’d generated in prior years, Thunder Ridge possessed one of the most devastating two-way players in 8-Man in Mason Baker.
The senior was electric all season long, helping the Longhorns to a 5-4 record despite the loss of a 2023 class that took the squad deep into the playoffs. Luckily for Baker, he was very much a part of the Longhorns’ past postseason success.
As a freshman Baker didn’t see much varsity field outside of mop-up duties, and the team was good, but not great, finishing 5-4 after a 42-40 loss to Axtell in the first round of the playoffs.
In his sophomore season, Baker saw a bit more of the field offensively and on special teams, gaining 279 all-purpose yards. Defense is where his presence was felt most though, recording 34 tackles, an interception, and a pass deflection on a defense that was at times dominant, allowing more than 18 points just twice in all of the 2021 season.
Thunder Ridge advanced all the way to the state semifinals before losing to an Axtell team in the process of winning the first of what is currently a stretch of three-straight 8-Man II titles.
After his sophomore season, one of Baker’s biggest strengths began to come to light.
“Mason's biggest strength on the football field is being a very versatile player that can change the game from different positions,” head coach Joel Struckhoff said. “He has played QB, running back, wide receiver, and tight end over the years and has been able to make big plays at every position. His desire to win is something special that drives him to work hard to achieve his goals on the field.”
During his sophomore season, Baker played receiver and tight end offensively, along with defensive back on the other side of the ball, but Struckhoff began to see an expanded role for his versatile weapon as the Longhorns headed into the 2022 season.
“His junior year he started as a tight end and receiver and as the year progressed, he played some running back and quarterback for a different look in the backfield that helped win several games for us,” Struckhoff said. “Mason would sub in on a package at QB and Dylan Bice would go to running back, which was a look that was very successful come playoff time for us.”
Thunder Ridge had no issue reaching the 2022 playoffs, losing just one game in the regular season to Hill City, and winning all others by double digits.
This time Thunder Ridge advanced all the way to the state finals, but were again unable to overcome the Axtell juggernaut, leaving the Longhorns 11-2 and state runners-up.
Baker totalled 1,530 all-purpose yards with 20 total touchdowns, along with 65 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, three interceptions, and 10 pass deflections. The junior earned All-League second team honors at receiver.
Entering his senior year, Baker remained the same position chameleon he had been in years prior, though did most of his work on offense as the team’s signal-caller.
“Mason's senior year he was used mostly as a QB, but was treated as a running back,” Struckhoff said. “He carried a majority of our rushing snaps from the QB position and there were not many plays where he wasn't involved whether it be throwing the ball, rushing the ball, or receiving the ball.”
While his senior season didn’t yield the team success of the two years prior, Baker’s continued improvement as a football player was on full display.
“Mason started as a smaller player that really worked hard to get stronger and faster,” Struckhoff said. “He had great leaders in the classes above him that pushed him to work harder in the weight room and as an athlete. Mason was used in several roles over his playing time at tight end, so he had to adapt each year and just use his natural athletic ability to play several positions over the years.”
The Longhorns mustered just a 5-4 finish last fall – below Thunder Ridge’s standards, but still above .500 – and Baker was incredible in those nine games. He piled up an incredible 2,474 all-purpose yards, 1,925 of them on the ground, with 34 total TDs. While on defense he recorded 86 tackles, a tackle-for-loss, three interceptions, and seven pass deflections.
“He was also by far the biggest vocal leader we had on the team this year,” Struckhoff said. “With not many seniors, he stepped up to the task and really took over the sole role as a leader.”
Along with his Top 8 nod, Baker earned All-State from multiple outlets and was a Sports in Kansas Player of the Year candidate.
After he wraps up high school, Baker plans to continue his football career, or run track, with Evangel University the school currently at the top of his list.