A 7-year-old Aliayah McDonald listened adoringly as her father spoke of his home state and how they idolized their athletes.
“Arkansas treats their track athletes like gods,” her father, Capt. McFerrin “Mac” McDonald, used to boast.
“From that day on I always told him, ‘I want to be a god. I want to go to Arkansas,’” the now 18-year-old McDonald said.
On Tuesday, McDonald made that dream a reality when she decommitted from Southern Methodist and verbally declared her intention to run track at the University of Arkansas.
“I didn’t think my talents would get me that far. I know I’m OK, but I’m not great yet, and I know Arkansas (only) takes great athletes,” McDonald said. “I’m really excited, it’s almost like a dream come true.”
McDonald will sign on Feb. 8 in order to allow her father, who doesn’t return from an assignment at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Cali. until Feb. 6, to attend the ceremony.
“He and my Mom have missed a lot of my high school seasons, and a lot of important (high school moments) because of deployments, and this is one thing I don’t want him to miss,” McDonald said. “He wasn’t able to be with me on my visit, which I know he hated that he missed, but I won’t let him miss my signing.”
McDonald originally picked SMU on Dec. 9 over a partial scholarship opportunity at Baylor, where friend and fellow track star Cion Hicks committed the week prior. McDonald had also received interest from Alabama, Houston, North Texas, TCU, and West Point, among others.
But through it all, it was the call two days before her commitment that really seemed to stay with her — the one from Arkansas.
“I was on my way from practice, and I had a really bad practice ... and that Friday (the Arkansas coach) called me and I went home in tears because I was so excited that somebody from the SEC — a big school like Arkansas where Olympians have come from — they wanted me,” McDonald said. “It made me feel really good. It was like a birthday present.”
Yet McDonald held firm with her commitment to SMU, describing her mood as “dead-set” despite having made only two of the maximum five official visits. That was until Harker Heights girls basketball head coach Shirretha Nelson, who’s also an assistant Lady Knights track coach, convinced her to take all of her visits.
McDonald visited Arizona two weeks ago and then found her way to the Fayetteville, Ark. campus last week for her final official visit.
“When I went to Arkansas, I couldn’t find anything wrong with that school,” McDonald said. “It was one of my dream schools to go to, I just never thought I would get a call from them.”
The Razorback women are currently ranked No. 4 in the NCAA indoor standings and their home, the Randal Tyson Track, will play host to the 2013 indoor championship March 8-9. Arkansas is also the top-ranked women’s program in the SEC, which features four of the nation’s top seven programs.
“I feel like it’s going to fuel my fire because my ultimate goal is to be the best in the world, the best out there, and to do that, I have to compete against the best,” McDonald said. “And when I compete against the best, I’ll eventually beat the best and then I’ll be the best.”
Entering her senior season with the Lady Knights, McDonald already holds the Heights school record in the 400-meter dash (55.64 seconds) — her premier event — and has qualified for the Region II-5A meet in both the 200- and 400-meter runs each of the last two years along with anchoring the Lady Knights’ 12-5A champion 1,600 relay team last season.