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Lady Aggies win first MEAC Indoor title, men end 21 year drought

Women’s Track & Field Action

LANDOVER, MD. – After the North Carolina A&T indoor women’s track and field team won the program’s first-ever Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Championship with their convincing victory Saturday, Feb. 18, at the Prince George’s County Sports and Learning Complex, junior Morgan Knight said it came about because the Aggies own the sprints.

A&T runner India Brown won the 200m indoor title for the second straight season and was part of the winning 4x400 relay team. Photo by Joe Daniels/Carolina Peacemaker A&T runner India Brown won the 200m indoor title for the second straight season and was part of the winning 4x400 relay team. Photo by Joe Daniels/Carolina Peacemaker
Is that arrogance? Knight pushes back on that notion. Cockiness? Not quite, according to her teammate India Brown. Overconfidence? Nope. These are Aggies, it’s all about pride.

“Some of our rivals in the conference call us ‘Sprint U,’” said Duane Ross, director of track and field programs, describing the Aggies’ tradition of dominating in sprinting events. “We take that as a compliment. Our ladies take pride in it. If we’re not going to do anything else, that straight, whether it is the 60 (meters), 200, 100 outdoors, we’re going to own it.”

The Aggies owned, franchised and incorporated the straights on Saturday as they scored victories in the 60, 400, 60-meter hurdles and 4x400. Sophomore Kayla White, freshman Madelein Akobundu and Knight finished 1, 2 and 3 in the 60m hurdles. But here is the scary thing for all those rivals calling N.C. A&T Sprint U. The Aggies diversified their portfolio over the weekend.

There were also wins in the pole vault, long jump and triple jump. N.C. A&T scored 145 points during the indoor championships, 51 more points than their closest foe, Florida A&M. They dominated the meet by scoring in multiple events outside of the sprints. The distance medley relay team finished third to post six points. Not only did freshman Akobundu win the long jump on Thursday, teammate Anisa Toppin, finished second.

Toppin was also recognized as the meet’s most outstanding female field performer after she coupled her second-place long jump finish with a win in the triple jump to score 18 points for the weekend. The Aggies also scored in the pentathlon, 800m, 1-mile and 3000m. Depth outside of the sprints is certainly not where we left the Aggies after the 2016 outdoor season. When the Aggies competed in the 2016 MEAC Track and Field Outdoor Championships last May at N.C. A&T’s Irwin Belk Track, they had 13 athletes. In less than a year, they were jumping up and down celebrating a title.

“I’m not surprised at all that we won it. In fact, at the beginning of the season I was more confident in the women coming in here and running away with it because our recruiting went so well. We put together the women’s team slowly because we really wanted to put together a complete team,” said Ross whose strategy when he came to N.C. A&T in 2012 was to build the men first, then the women.

We ran into a bump in the road last year, but I knew the class we were bringing in was going to be special. My staff and I knew we had the pieces, it was just a matter of getting them on the track.”

Ross credits his staff of Perry Cabean, Garfield Ellenwood II, Hyleas Fountain, Tempest Vance and Bill Dunn for working late nights, making numerous phone calls and “beating the bushes” to find quality athletes. Ross called recruiting a top priority in the program. He said for every five or six excellent athletes who turn them down, they get two or three who will say yes. The coaching staff’s priority paid off Saturday.

Freshman Tori Ray won the 400m (55.77) and was a part of the 4x400 relay victory. Freshman G’Jasmyne Butler finished second in the 800m (2:13.70), while freshman Camille Martin scored in the 3000m by finishing sixth. Freshman Taliyah Townsend scored in the 200 and 400m and freshman Asya Macon scored in the 400m. Three freshmen helped the Aggies finish third in the distance medley relay (12:18.37).

“Coach Ross recruited a lot of freshmen and at the beginning of the season we had trouble getting them to have the same mindset we already had,” said Brown who won the 200m indoor title for the second straight season. She was also a part of the 4x400 relay team that won on Saturday. “We already had the mindset, so we had to get the freshmen to the think the same way.”

And what is that mindset? “Winning,” Brown answered. “You need to know you’re the best and then go out and show it.”

Arrogance? Nope. Aggie Pride.

Men’s Track & Field Action

A&T men sweep the 100m. Photo by Joe Daniels/Carolina Peacemaker A&T men sweep the 100m. Photo by Joe Daniels/Carolina Peacemaker

Second place became a plague throughout the North Carolina A&T men’s track and field programs. How bad was it?

Men’s cross country finished second at the MEAC championships in 2014 and ’15. The outbreak carried over into outdoor season where the Aggies have now finished second at the MEAC championships three years in a row starting in 2014. That includes a one-point defeat in 2015. Indoor was no different. The Aggies finished second in 2015 and ‘16. In 2015 they lost by 1.5 points.

Even when people had the best intentions in congratulating N.C. A&T director of track and field programs Duane Ross on finishing second, it still irked him inside. After all, it was second place.

A&T senior Frank Quarles, jumped 23-feet, 10¼ inches to make Third-Team All MEAC. Photo by  Joe Daniels/Carolina Peacemaker A&T senior Frank Quarles, jumped 23-feet, 10¼ inches to make Third-Team All MEAC. Photo by Joe Daniels/Carolina Peacemaker

But when his men’s team took a huge cooler of water and dumped it over his head on Saturday after the men won the 2017 MEAC Indoor Track and Field Championships at Prince George’s County Sports and Learning Complex, it was perfect image of his team figuratively washing off all those second place finishes.

That wasn’t the only thing they were washing off, however. The Aggies put water to a 21-year indoor championship drought. They also won the program’s first-ever outright MEAC indoor title after the 1996 team shared it with Maryland Eastern Shore. There was no rationing on Saturday, however. The Aggies took the title outright with 146.5 points. Norfolk State came in second with 96. The Aggie women, who also won the title on Saturday, were the only other track team there that scored 100 points.

“That was the plan,” said Ross. “Nothing against my counterparts, but my mission was to win this thing by keeping other teams from scoring 100 points. I wanted to get rid of second place and do it in a way that no one would remember we ever got second place.”

Ross and his staff were intent on getting across the message of finishing every race, every throw and every jump with 100 percent intensity. Ross implored his athletes not to look ahead to other events or wonder about how many team points they had.

“When you lose by a point and a point-and-half, you leave nothing to chance,” said Ross. “Go out there and compete hard all the way every time.”

As Saturday progressed however, there was no question the Aggies’ second-place run was over. They were so impressive they became No. 1 trending topic inside the sports complex. Consider all four N.C. A&T 60-meter finalists finished in the top-4 led by junior Chris Belcher’s 6.65. Belcher also led a group of top-3 finishers in the 200 and he finished with a 21.38 followed by sophomore Rodney Rowe (21.59) and senior Caleb Gabriel (21.78).

The Aggies had the meet won by the time the final event of the day, the 4x400 relay, came around. Yet the Aggies brought the crowd to their feet with a first-place finish in 3:16.91.

“This is historic,” said senior jumper Frank Quarles. “To see the men and women win this on the same day is phenomenal after all the hard work we put in at practice. Even at the end when we had no one to compete against, we just competed against ourselves. We’ve been waiting on this a long time. I’ve been waiting on it for four years. I can’t even put into words what this means.”

Ross hopes another five senior classes do not have to come through N.C. A&T without an indoor title. He believes the infrastructure is in place for championships to come. Not only is their strength on the track with sophomores Justin Hamilton and Michael Dickson, but sophomore jumper Lasheon Strozier finished second in the triple jump at 51-feet, 8½ inches and sophomore Derrick Wheeler came in fourth in the weight throw at 53-feet, 8 ¼ inches.

“We’re starting to score points in areas we haven’t scored before,” said Ross. “We’re putting together a team where it is going to take a pretty good effort to beat us. I’m like most coaches, I want to leave behind a championship legacy.”

First three placers earn all-conference honors. The team they are on is based on where they placed.

First-Team All-MEAC: Chris Belcher (60 meters, 6.65, 200m, 21.38, 4x400); Dorian Claggett (4x400); Caleb Gabriel (4x400); Dajuan Harding (400m, 47.75, 4x400); Todd Townsend (heptathlon, 5,150).

Second-Team All-MEAC: Rodney Rowe (60m, 6.76); (200m, 21.59); Lasheon Strozier (triple jump, 51-feet, 8 ½ inches); Todd Townsend (60mh, 7.96).

Third-Team All-MEAC: Caleb Gabriel (200m, 21.78); Joel Thomas (60m, 6.78); Frank Quarles (long jump, 23-feet, 10 ¼ inches). Darren White (5000m, 15:02.99).