Mia Nickson has an appreciation for hand-to-hand combat.
The Penn State senior actually owns three Samurai swords and two daggers.
“I think in fighting and the martial arts kind of thing, the best weapons aren’t guns,” the forward said. “Anybody can pull a trigger. It takes skill and dedication to learn how to master a sword, a dagger or a knife. I pay homage to these things.”
She also pays homage to a warrior’s mentality with her game.
At 6-foot-2 and slight in build, Nickson is often facing players that are taller, heavier and stronger than she is. But through technique and sheer determination, Nickson has become one of the key components that helped turn around a program that is making its third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance with Sunday’s 5:10 p.m. clash against Cal Poly.
While many of her teammates provide the speed and finesse, Nickson provides the toughness. In a game against Illinois near the end of the season, both Nickson (nose) and center Nikki Greene (mouth) had to leave the game after being bloodied in the opening minutes.
Nickson came back to score 13 points and grab seven rebounds in the contest, which featured 47 fouls.
“She was in heaven,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said of Nickson that night. “This was her kind of game.”
Change of heart
Nickson wasn’t always a physical scrapper.
In fact, when she left Notre Dame Academy in northern Virginia, Nickson admits she wasn’t much of a physical force.
It took a season at Boston College to change all of that. The freshman found herself being shoved around by 6-foot-6 Carolyn Swords and 6-foot-4 Stephanie Murphy, in practice.
“Going against them every day, the first couple of weeks it was hard for me,” Nickson said. “I had never played against bigger people like that. They were big and wide and just kept scoring on me. I don’t like that.”
Stopping two of the best players in Boston College history, required an adjustment.
“I had to figure out how to body them up,” she said. “I had to put my body into them. I had to front them and their elbows are right at my face.”
Nickson played sparingly that season for the Eagles and with a wealth of post players in the program decided that Chestnut Hill, Mass., wasn’t the right spot for her.
Following the Eagles’ trip to the WNIT Final Four, Nickson let it be known that she was looking to transfer. Nickson considered both Northwestern, with former George Washington coach Joe McKeown, at the helm, and Penn State, thanks to her high school coach’s connection with Lady Lion assistant Kia Damon.
Nickson had a long phone conversation with Washington and then visited Penn State. She decided that playing for Washington, who at the time was hoping to halt the program’s four consecutive losing seasons, was the right choice.
“She gave me all of this confidence that I didn’t have as a transfer,” Nickson said. “I was just really down about making a decision to go to BC and it not working out. She rebuilt my confidence and said, ‘It will be fine here.’”
Leading the way
Per NCAA rules, Nickson had to sit out a season, but came in with the highly lauded class featuring Alex Bentley, Greene, Gizelle Studevent and Marisa Wolfe.
The former military brat, who had moved often as a child, fit in quickly.
“I had to learn how to make friends easily because I wasn’t sure how long we would be in one place,” Nickson said of her childhood. “Being the new kid is always hard. Everybody likes to laugh. You’ve got to
find what you do best.”
While sitting out that season, she often played on the “red team,” the squad of Penn State men’s students who practice against the Lady Lions.
Her work ethic quickly earned her teammates’ respect. She was named a captain before officially putting on the Penn State uniform for the first time.
“I just lead by example,” Nickson said. “I’m not really vocal. ‘Mia does the right things. She’s not doing too crazy things. She’s not perfect, but she’s working hard.’”
“She leads by example which is something I like,” said junior forward Talia East. “Everybody leads in their own way, but somebody who leads by example is somebody you’ve got to love. She keeps us together. She doesn’t say much, but when she does it means something. You’re going to follow her.”
Back on track
In a program that was in dire need of a little toughness, Nickson has fit in, often doing the dirty jobs that draw little fanfare.
Penn State has been to the NCAA Tournament all three years that Nickson has been in the lineup.
“I think she was exactly what we needed to round out that (recruiting) class,” said Washington. “I think her addition made it complete.”
Nickson has averaged more than eight points and seven rebounds per game in all three of her seasons at Penn State. She’s willingly scrapped against some of the most physically imposing post players in the country on a weekly basis in the Big Ten.
“It’s so funny because she’s one of the smallest post players in the Big Ten, if not the smallest,” junior Ariel Edwards said. “The fact that she always wants to bump with the big girls is funny to us.”
Nickson says she’s developed an attitude that she has nothing to lose against the bigger opponents.
“They’re supposed to dominate and beat me,” she said. “It’s supposed to be easy. I guess part of being a competitor. It’s like, ‘No. I know you have 25 or 30 pounds on me, but it doesn’t matter. I’m not going to just beat you with quickness. I’m going to beat you at your game.’”
But beating bigger players often mean Nickson has to suffer a beating.
“It’s in my element,” Nickson said. “It’s big bodies and just banging. You know when wake up the next day, ‘Man, that was a good game. I’m completely sore and I’m not sure if I can move right this second.’”
Nickson’s willingness to take the contact even amazes Washington.
“She likes to hit people,” Washington said. “That’s what Mia likes to do. She likes being hit. She was a football player or a hockey player in her previous life, one of the two. She doesn’t mind contact.”
Nickson loves football and one of her favorite players is former Baltimore Raven and now Houston Texas safety Ed Reed.
“I see myself more as a safety, not necessarily picking off passes, but being there and, ‘Don’t come over the middle because that’s when you’re going to get laid out.’
“The offense isn’t sure where I am,” she added. “I get charges and they don’t even know I’m there. That’s what the safety kind of does. The quarterback sees them and tries to look them off, but if they
don’t it’s going to be a hard time for them.”
Nickson doesn’t entertain thoughts of playing professional basketball after leaving Penn State. Nickson, who already has her degree in communication arts and sciences, plans to follow in her mother’s footsteps by joining the service.
While Sharon Gettings served in the Army, her daughter is looking at the Marines and Air Force. Once the season is finished, Nickson will be taking tests to enter the officer’s training program.
Her desire to join the service doesn’t surprise her teammates, who say Nickson sometimes gets caught out of position on defense while trying to cover for others.
“She is very protective of her teammates,” East said. “She has always put people ahead of herself.”
Nickson, an avid reader of historical fiction, agrees that is a source of motivation.
“I do think that Americans need protection,” she said. “As a person that’s what I care about. I don’t care about your beliefs. As a person, you should be able to express (your beliefs). That’s what I’m joining to
protect, not just your freedom of expression but to live. There are certain places in the world that you can’t do that.”
Nickson, who has yet to fire a gun, also likes the structured life in the service, not unlike her mapped out daily routine at Penn State.
Plus, Nickson sees a lot of herself in her mom, a woman for which she has the utmost respect.
“She helped mold me into the person I am today,” Nickson said. “Without that military background, I’m not here. I’m not a captain. I’m not this physical, do the little things type of player. I’m not a student-
athlete. It was her determination to show me things and make it better for me that I am where I am now.”