CASA GRANDE — The blindfold went on as soon as she left the house.
Brynna McQuillen’s mom, Stacy, put the blindfold on her daughter and walked her to the car, driving her to an undisclosed location. That location turned out to be Mission Royale II Park, where a grand celebration took place in true social distancing style.
McQuillen, a cross country and track star at Vista Grande, was brought there Wednesday to sign an athletic scholarship to the University of Nebraska.
When she arrived at the park and the blindfold was removed, she was greeted by Vista Grande track coach Cristina Salcido-Grigg, who led McQuillen to a table draped in a Nebraska Cornhuskers tablecloth, with a large Vista Grande Spartans backdrop behind it. Scarlet and white balloons — Nebraska’s colors — were attached to a chair pulled up to the table.
But that wasn’t all.
Many of McQuillen’s track and field teammates and friends were there. But not in the park. Mindful of social distancing guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a different plan.
They were in cars and trucks, cruising around a circle drive on the perimeter of the park. They drove by in a slow procession, about 10 vehicles in all, circling the park a couple of times. As McQuillen signed, they honked horns, rang cowbells, cheered and waved homemade signs congratulating her.
McQuillen was overwhelmed with emotion, her eyes welling up as she waved back to her supporters. For someone who missed out on the opportunity to compete at the state track meet her senior year, it meant the world to her.
“It’s awesome, it’s more than I could have asked for,” she said.
“I kind of didn’t get the closure that I needed for high school, and this kind of gave that to me. It felt like a goodbye to my team a little bit, to go off to a new team.”
It’s no surprise that McQuillen is going to a Division I school. But going to a Power 5 conference like the Big Ten is a testament to not just her ability, but her determination and desire. Pinal County very rarely sends athletes to Power 5 schools.
She placed second in the 1,600 meters (5:14.11) at the Division III state championships last year, and she followed that up with a fourth-place finish at the state cross country meet Nov. 16. A week later, she set a personal record in the 5,000 meters at a Nike regional qualifying meet with a time of 18:18.3.
McQuillen’s original dream school was Baylor. It was the early favorite but couldn’t offer enough scholarship money. Late in the process, she was all but assured of going to Kansas State. Nebraska, which had contacted her early but hadn’t shown as much interest, swooped in late and made a hard push.
The wooing process paid off for the Cornhuskers.
“They were actually one of the first schools to contact me at the Division I level, [which] has been my goal since probably sophomore year,” McQuillen said of Nebraska. “But I was kind of going to go for K-State, and then [Nebraska’s coach] came along and offered me some (scholarship) money, and I was like, ‘Ohhh, I’ve always wanted to go to Nebraska.’ It kind of just all lined up.”
Nebraska’s coach initially told McQuillen she wasn’t capable of competing at the Big Ten level. Later, he had a change of heart.
“He basically said that my track times were there, and that I would make a great asset and that I would be able to grow on his team,” McQuillen said.
But at the time, Nebraska couldn’t offer any money. McQuillen later reached out to see if there was still interest, saying she was headed to Kansas State.
After hearing McQuillen was going to K-State, Nebraska kicked in some scholarship money the next day, and that was all she needed to hear.
The brains behind the meticulously planned and creative celebration was Salcido-Grigg. As McQuillen’s track coach, she was very disappointed that her star runner could not compete at state, since all spring sports were canceled.
The signing ceremony was her way of trying to give McQuillen something special during her senior year.
“Watching her reaction probably is what got me most,” said Salcido-Grigg, becoming emotional. “She deserved it. She deserved every honk, every cheer ... she had a moment, her own special moment, that was worth all the four years.”
McQuillen said Salcido-Grigg was instrumental in her journey.
“She made me believe in myself when I definitely didn’t think I could, and I would not be here without her,” McQuillen said.
The secret of the celebration was well guarded. When McQuillen left the house blindfolded, Stacy McQuillen drove in circles for awhile to throw off her daughter, who she said would have figured out exactly where they were headed if she had driven straight to the park.
The deception worked, adding to the heightened anticipation and emotion of the event.
McQuillen’s senior track season was stolen away, but no one can take away the moment she had in the park with her teammates and friends. That memory will last a lifetime.