GREENSBORO — The secret’s out, as if it were ever really a secret at all: N.C. A&T’s track and field teams are pretty darn good.
The Aggies will head off to the NCAA East Regionals at North Florida in Jacksonville on Thursday rated among the nation’s best teams. The men’s and women’s teams both peaked at No. 6 after the MEAC Championships.
The men are No. 9 and the women No. 13 this week, slipping only after some of the power conferences held their league meets.
“We’re not the nation’s best-kept secret anymore,” A&T coach Duane Ross says. “But if people didn’t know we were heading in this direction, then they weren’t paying attention. Because every year we’ve gotten closer and closer.”
Sprinters have been the building blocks for the Aggies’ success.
Chris Belcher, a pro who runs for Nike now, broke MEAC Championship records in the 100 and 200 two years in a row at A&T and finished third in the 100 at the 2017 NCAA Championships in 9.93 seconds.
Now senior Kayla White heads into the NCAAs as the top seed in both the 100 and 200, coming off an NCAA indoor title in the 200 back in March.
“I want to double in the 100 and 200,” White says. “I want to win, which I will, and also I’m on the list for The Bowerman (Award). It would be really cool if I could win that. It would mean the world to me. No woman from an HBCU has won that award yet. If they see me do that, it could push other athletes from HBCUs to follow their dreams and take the sport seriously, to love it the way I love this sport.”
White was a sophomore when Belcher was a senior. By then, A&T had turned a corner, blossoming into a MEAC powerhouse with national contenders.
“Kayla’s been that first brick in the foundation,” Ross says. “She’s one of the reasons the women are where they are, nationally and in the conference. Obviously, she can’t win a meet on her own. But she’s brought this team together and showed them they can achieve these kinds of marks, have this type of success.”
Out on the recruiting trail, Ross has found power in the names of his stars.
“These days, most of the time I don’t have to mention the names Chris Belcher and Kayla White. The recruits already know,” Ross says. “This has been a good recruiting year for us. We have our best recruiting class ever coming in next year. We’ve drawn a lot of interest from some very good athletes, based on what Kayla has done and what Chris did in the past, and now what Rodney (Rowe) and Trevor (Stewart) are doing.”
It’s reached a point, Ross says, where the program sells itself to recruits.
“My sophomore year, we won our first indoor and outdoor (MEAC titles). I started to see it roll,” White says. “We started getting recruits who were kind of better than some people who were already here and winning. So now we’re securing spots for some of the top recruits in the country.”
Two of those recruits last year, freshmen Cambrea Sturgis and Kamaya Debose-Epps, run along with White and junior Taliyah Townsend on the nation’s fourth-fastest 400 relay team.
“We’re going to miss Kayla,” Ross says. “We’re in good hands with the freshmen we have and the progress our upperclassmen have made. But she’s definitely been the centerpiece of this program.”
White’s steady improvement from talented freshman to pro-caliber senior has also helped lure recruits, Ross says. And now just two meets remain for her as an A&T sprinter.
“I want her to end her collegiate career by establishing a legacy,” Ross says. “So that anyone who comes here knows the name Kayla White. That can build this program for years to come. And I want her to be proud of that. What she’s doing is bigger than winning a trophy. She’s laying the groundwork for a lot of kids who will decide to come here.”