North Carolina A&T men’s 4×400 relay team, which has the fastest time in the world this year, leads the Aggies into their final Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) track and field championships this week. Their hope is to close an illustrious run with a fourth consecutive outdoor championship, while the women’s team is working toward its third consecutive title.
Since 2012, when coach Duane Ross arrived, the Aggies have won 16 MEAC titles in indoor and outdoor track and cross-country. With the Aggies joining the Big South Conference later this year, both the men’s and women’s teams will attempt to earn their last MEAC title on their home track at Truist Stadium in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, which prevented an outdoor season last spring, N.C. A&T’s track program came out of the starting blocks blazing in 2021, competing and winning against top programs. At the Division I indoor championship in March, the men’s team placed fifth overall, ahead of the perennial power Arkansas.
The top-5 finish was powered by the 4×400 relay of Randolph Ross Jr., Daniel Stokes, Elijah Young and Trevor Stewart, who won their event with a time of 3:03.16. Before their stellar run, there had been some anxiety as Young, who runs the third leg of the relay, was having a problem with his left hamstring.
“The day of the meet, [Coach Ross] was contemplating on a lot of stuff and 10 minutes before racing, I told him, ‘You should really trust me on this one and just let me run,’ because at that time I really did feel better,” said Young. “He was like, ‘All right, I got you,’ and at that time it was more like me just doing my part for the team. When the race was over, it was more like a relief to me.”
With the win on March 13, N.C. A&T became the first historically Black college and university (HBCU) to win an indoor NCAA Division I track and field title in the 4×400 since Morgan State won in back-to-back years in 1965 and 1966, the first two years of the NCAA indoor championships.
“This is our moment to create history,” said Ross. “A lot of us don’t get this opportunity. To be the first HBCU to do that in a sport in this country where you’re not expected to do the same thing as other institutions primarily because of money, that’s the mistake people make. They’re not looking at the hearts of these men. You can look at the size of our wallet all you want, but you can’t measure the hearts of these men, my coaching staff and the athletes on this team.”
The team didn’t revel in its success for too long. At the Texas Relays outdoor meet, the 4×400 quartet claimed the world’s leading time in the 400 relay for 2021 with a time of 3:00.23. (The world record is 2:54.29.) Now, days ahead of the MEAC championships, N.C. A&T’s men’s program is currently ranked No. 11 overall and the women had been ranked as high as No. 8 in late March.
Much of this growth could be attributed to the commitment from athletes and Ross’ approach.
“It gives me a base to stand on as a Black person representing an HBCU,” said Stewart. “It gives me a sense of pride and mainly because the coaching staff and Ross, who coaches me, actually helped me up to a point that if it hurts in practice then I’m doing something right. If you go all the way down to the basics and break yourself down to rebuild yourself, you’re doing something right.”
When Ross first came to the program, he was the Aggies’ fourth coach in three years.
From 1984 to 2010, the team had been headed by four-time MEAC Coach of the Year Roy Thompson. Under Thompson, N.C. A&T’s track team became a national presence, winning four outdoor MEAC championships and one indoor title.
“He was like a grandpa figure,” said Darryl Williams, an alum of North Carolina A&T’s track and field team and a previous captain. “He was a motivator. He would tell you, ‘If you’re going to make a mistake, make it an aggressive one.’ ”
But the death of Jospin Milandu during an unauthorized tryout in the summer of 2010 forced the resignation of Thompson. In fall 2012, Ross arrived from Methodist University after two other coaches didn’t work out.
For some athletes, it was a slow transition because there was a lack of trust. Ross came from a Division III school and no one really knew his coaching methods or how long he’d be around.
“I got way faster [under Ross],” said Williams. “Every coach got different training styles and Coach Ross as a coach was more understanding, so he catered to the training styles that he recognized.”
Since 2017, Ross has led a dominant program, winning MEAC titles and now placing in the top 5 in an NCAA championship. Although an NCAA outdoor championship is the current goal, a handful of N.C. A&T’s athletes are anticipating the Olympic trials or have already qualified for the Olympics in their respective countries.
“A lot of people are sleeping on the women because the talk has been all about the men the last couple of years, but our women are just as strong. Not necessarily in the 400, but in the sprints, the 100, 200 and hurdles. We got four of the best hurdlers in the country, and it’s really impressive to watch this women’s team and I’m proud of them,” said Ross.
Athletes such as Madelieine Akobundu (hurdles and jumps), TeJyrica Robinson (hurdles), Breanne Bygrave (hurdles), Paula Salmon (hurdles), Delecia McDuffie (sprints) and Cambrea Sturgis (sprints) are all having very good seasons.
“The women’s program is a program that is constantly evolving,” said Akobundu, a graduate student and qualifier for the Olympic trials in the 100-meter hurdles. “It’s changing and we are getting newer people. Right now, the attention is on the men, which is great, the men have had an amazing season, but I feel like this outdoor season is the women’s season. We’re coming up. We’re making a lot of progress and we’re hitting a lot of good times.”
The growth that Akobundu has seen since her freshman year at N.C. A&T is part of Ross’ game plan in having an effective team.
“I’ve seen the team grow by leaps and bounds,” said Ross. “We came in and just built it the way I thought it needed to be built. We somewhat changed the culture there and put a lot of emphasis on what I thought was important to the program.”
Stokes has qualified to run for Mexico in the 400 meters. Akeem Sirleaf will be running for Liberia and currently holds the country’s 200- (20.37) and 400-meter (45.42) records. Rasheem Brown will be running for the Cayman Islands in the 110-meter hurdles. Ross Jr., Ross’ son, has qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials in the 400 along with Stewart.
Others who have qualified for the trials June 18-27 are Sturgis (200), alums Kayla White (100), Christopher Belcher (100 and 200), and Rodney Rowe (100 and 200).
“Our entire culture is looking at this and saying we need this to happen. This is not just for A&T. This is for our alumni. This is for our culture. This is for all the Black coaches that have come before me that struggled to get in this game because there was a time they couldn’t even get into the track meets that we go to,” said Ross. “This is a part of our legacy that we want to leave, this is bigger than just winning races for us.”