Midway through Lainey McKinley’s freshman season of cross country, Loyola head coach ChrisJon Simon told her she had the potential to become a Division I athlete.

“She was like no way,” he said.

On Monday, McKinley confirmed Simon’s suspicion by committing to University of Kentucky after taking an official visit Sunday. She plans to sign her National Letter of Intent on Wednesday at Loyola.

“I really liked it there a lot,” said McKinley, who also had an official visit to University of Iowa in September. “I got to see the facilities, talk to the coaches and run with the team. They really support you both athletically and academically, and that’s important to me.”

Competing at the Class 3A state meet Saturday for the first time since her freshman year, McKinley placed 110th in 18 minutes, 17 seconds at Detweiller Park in Peoria. A stress fractured in her right leg sidelined her as a sophomore and junior.

“Overall, it wasn’t my best performance, but I was still excited to be there running,” she said. “It’s a cool experience and was super rewarding.”

While McKinley has natural speed, her greatest asset is her work ethic and mental toughness, according to Simon.

“In sports, a lot of times, you fail more than you succeed,” he said. “She’s willing to fail in order to succeed. Even when she was injured, she trained like a Division I athlete. That says a lot.

“She deserved to end her cross country career at the state meet.”

In a few weeks, McKinley said she will start preparing for track and field season, which begins Jan. 15.

“It will be nice to have a break, but I’m excited for track,” she said. “I have big goals for the season.”