N.C. A&T will be in a race to make history at NCAA Indoor Championships
The fifth-ranked Aggies are looking to become the first HBCU team to win at nationals
When Randolph “Duane” Ross Sr. first learned that the North Carolina A&T men’s track and field team had taken over the nation’s No. 1 ranking in Division I on Jan. 31, it took him back to a conversation he had that has stuck with him for 10 years.
Shortly after being named the Aggies’ director of track and field programs in July 2012, Ross Sr. outlined his vision for the program to the school’s alumni base. However, some deemed his expectations a bit too lofty, especially for a historically Black college and university (HBCU).
“During the first meeting I had with some of our alumni, I told them the goal was to win a national championship,” Ross Sr. said to Andscape. “I was told by another Black man that I was too ambitious [and] that we couldn’t do that here. That has never sat well with me because that’s what society has poisoned us with [and] has put limits on us. I’ve never raised my children like that. I don’t coach my team like that. Ten years later here we are, but trust me, every year that conversation has been in the back of my mind as we’ve continued to try to get to this point.”
Currently ranked fifth in the nation, the Aggies have held the No. 1 spot twice this season. Led by Randolph Ross Jr., Ross Sr.’s son and the reigning NCAA outdoor 400-meter champion, the team has a good shot at becoming the first HBCU to win an NCAA Division I title in track at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships March 11-12.
“This is what we’ve been training and preparing for over the past three or four years, even before I got here,” said Ross Jr. “Being ranked No. 1 is nice and all, but when it comes down to who’s really the best team, it’s going to be [decided] starting on March 11. [Being] ranked No. 1 is what a lot of teams see [and] a lot of teams aim for, but No. 1 in the rankings isn’t necessarily going to get you the trophy in the end. So we decided to stay focused and prepare for nationals. When it comes down to it, we’ve got to perform.”
Since taking over the program, Ross Sr. has transformed the Aggies into a powerhouse. During his tenure, N.C. A&T has won 16 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles in cross country, indoor and outdoor track and field.
“It’s been a challenge,” said Ross Sr. “We’ve had our challenges [and] haven’t always been in positions to win national championships, or even win conference championships. We had to start at a certain place, and we had to build it to where we are. The journey has absolutely been wonderful. So here we are, close. In my opinion, the best chance that an HBCU has had to make some history is here.”
One of the key components to the Aggies’ run for history has been Ross Jr., who spurned offers from Iowa, South Carolina, Ohio State and others to join the Aggies and run for his father.
“It’s [playing for my father] not as bad as somebody will believe,” Ross Jr. said. “When we get to track practice, he and I understand that this is business now and we can’t really be distracted by other stuff. Yeah, it’s different seeing a parent every day during practice, but [I] actually kind of like it.”
Not only is Ross Jr. the reigning NCAA outdoor champ, but he is also the top men’s 400m runner in the world, with a record time of 43.85 set at last year’s outdoor nationals in Eugene, Oregon. He’s also one of four athletes the Aggies sent to the Tokyo Games last summer, where he took home a gold medal in the 4×400-meter relay.
When Team USA arrived in Tokyo last July, Ross Sr. was in the stands watching his son compete, a role reversal of the 2004 Olympics in Athens, when the younger Ross watched his father compete in the 110m hurdles. As exciting as competing in his first Olympics at age 20 was, it was a learning experience for Ross Jr. After he mistakenly let up on his final few strides and failed to advance to the semifinals in the 400, Ross Sr. was there to offer him advice. Then, when the men’s 4×400 lineup changed with Ross Jr. left out of the relay final, Ross Sr. was again there to comfort him.
“While we were in Tokyo at the Olympics, one of the most important lessons that stuck with me was never let anybody else make decisions for me,” Ross Jr. said of his Olympic experience. “We didn’t have the best first round for the relay, which allowed everybody else to decide who was going to be on the relay team going into the final. But if we ran the way we were supposed to, there wouldn’t have been any debate about who’s going to be in the final. So being able to hear that [advice] from him in the moment and then experience it in real time really opened my eyes about what it takes to win at that level.”
Joining Ross at nationals will be Aggies sophomore Javonte’ Harding, who is ranked third in the nation in the men’s 200m, and freshman Leonard Mustari, who is one of the two fastest U20 60H runners of all time. He tied the U20 record this season when he ran a 7.55 at the Tiger Paw Invite on Feb. 11.
Then there is the Aggies’ defending 4×400 relay indoor national championship team, which is currently ranked No. 4. Three of last year’s squad members are back, including Ross Jr. and seniors Daniel Stokes and Elijah Young. Senior Akeem Lindo is scheduled to replace Trevor Stewart, who graduated in 2021.
Last month, the Aggies men’s team placed third at the Big South Indoor Track & Field Championship, and the women’s team, which features Ross Sr.’s daughter Jonah, a sophomore sprinter, won the indoor title. Heading into the Big South tournament, N.C. A&T had won four consecutive indoor conference championships. This year, its third-place result was likely due to Ross Sr.’s decision not to have several of his athletes, including Harding, Ross Jr. and Stokes, compete because of the flat surface at the tournament’s venue, the JDL Fast Track in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The plan going into nationals is for everyone to compete and make it to the finals to ensure that the Aggies collect the much-needed points.
“When it comes to nationals, it’s really about getting into the final,” Ross Jr. said. “So when we get there, everybody has to do their part in the prelims. [We have to] run smart, like [we] were trained to do and everybody can make it to the final. Like I learned at the Olympics, all we gotta do is just run the way they’ve been running all year and go place. We’re more spread out than we were years ago.”
There might be a lot of pressure on the Aggies as one of the clear favorites to win. However, the team has been embracing the pressure of being at the top.
“We’ve trained for this,” Ross Jr. said. “That’s been the objective this whole year and everybody knows it. [Coach] tells the guys all the time about the HBCU [angle]. So, everybody now uses it as motivation to go forward instead of being a little frightened by it.”
Added Ross Sr.: “This is their moment. Breaking down barriers and doing something that’s never been done … I tell them that so they’re mentally prepared. They’ve been disciplined all year. We can’t wait for that moment to get here.”