STARKVILLE — Nikki McCray-Penson had been there before.
Previously an assistant coach at South Carolina when the Palmetto State removed the Confederate flag from government buildings, McCray-Penson spent a major chunk of Tuesday night’s Virtual Road Dawgs Tour segment reflecting on her experiences with the changing of the Mississippi state flag in late June.
McCray-Penson was among a slew of coaches donning the maroon and white who lobbied legislators at the state capitol in Jackson to remove Confederate iconography from the state flag. She was also the lone MSU coach who addressed a number of reporters and legislators from the steps of the capitol building as she was flanked by coaches from all eight of Mississippi’s public universities after the NCAA announced it would no longer allow Mississippi schools to host postseason events unless the flag was changed.
“To go through it again, to see it happen in South Carolina and to see it happen in the state of Mississippi was very special,” McCray-Penson said Tuesday. “Now, it’s not up to the flag that’s going to keep us from being in postseason play, it’s up to us.”
“One of the reasons why I came to Mississippi State is because I knew we could be successful,” she continued. “And there has been success here and we want to continue that.”
Beyond McCray-Penson’s dealings at the state house, she also harped on the importance of removing the Confederate flag from the state banner on the recruiting trail. Having endured the removal of the flag in South Carolina as an assistant on Dawn Staley’s staff, McCray-Penson mentioned how it widened the breadth of the Gamecocks’ recruiting base.
“When I was at South Carolina, recruiting took off, businesses took off, everything. I mean we brought more businesses to the state. We’re bringing businesses back to the state because when you’re able to host (NCAA regionals) and you have 10,000 fans every night, and you’re bringing in different teams and their fans, hotels are filling up, eating places are filling up, I mean, it’s just a win win.”
Recruiting through technology
McCray-Penson conceded Tuesday she’s no technology buff, but the pandemic has given her a new perspective on recruiting through film.
Having earned three commitments in her inaugural 2021 class since the pandemic began creeping across the United States’ shores in mid-March, McCray-Penson and her staff have spent hours watching live streams of games and hounding high school coaches for film of potential prospects throughout.
“It’s very different because you don’t get to see the little details — how they handle a little adversity with their teammates when they come out of the game, or a coach gets on them,” she said. “It’s different because you can’t get the bird’s-eye view of everything.”
While live streams have become a new way of life, McCray-Penson and her staff have added virtual visits to their recruiting arsenal since the COVID-19 pandemic began. With players wary of traveling coupled with the NCAA’s current dead period regarding on-campus visits, McCray-Penson and her staff have adjusted to hosting recruits over Zoom.
“We can bring Mississippi State to a family rather than them coming on campus,” she said. “I never would have thought that would be possible, but it has been and it’s all about your presentation and how to make a family feel really connected to you and your school through Zoom.”
Who’s on campus?
Though voluntary workouts have been ongoing for the better part of a month, McCray-Penson finally got the majority of her players back on campus on Monday.
Prior to that, she noted that roughly seven players who lived relatively locally had been working out voluntarily as the COVID-19 crisis remains ongoing.
“Our student-athletes have been really good,” McCray-Penson said. “Those that have volunteered to workout, they have been doing what they need to do to get better so that we’re able to start up on July 20. As a new coach, for those that are comfortable, I’m going to be ready to rock and roll.”
Returning a roster that was ranked No. 3 in the country in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 poll earlier this offseason, the Bulldogs will be led this fall by sophomore guard Rickea Jackson and junior forward Jessika Carter — both of whom earned second team All-SEC last season.
Other key returners include starting point guard Myah Taylor, streaky shooting sophomore Aliyah Matharu and running mate JaMya Mingo-Young.
“I can’t wait for the Hump to jumbo this fall,” McCray-Penson said. “I’m excited.”
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.