GREENSBORO — Rodney Rowe was late to the last practice of his college career.
There’s not much that can slow down A&T’s senior sprinter, but a flat tire on his prized Cadillac Escalade stopped him in his tracks Friday morning.
“I could feel it going flat on the highway,” Rowe says, shaking his head, “and when I got to the exit, the tire was shredded. Nothing I could do. I had to call Triple-A.”
It’s about the only thing that’s gone wrong for N.C. A&T’s track teams this season.
The Aggies will send 16 athletes — eight men, eight women — to the NCAA Track & Field Championships in Austin, Texas, where they’ll compete in 13 events. The big meet runs Wednesday through Saturday.
A&T’s men are No. 10 in the latest Coaches’ Association national rating index. A&T’s women are No. 12.
That’s rarefied air for a small program from the MEAC.
Of the nine teams ahead of the Aggies’ men, seven come from the mighty SEC, Pac-12 or Big 12, led by No. 1 Texas Tech. Meanwhile, six of the top 10 women’s programs come from the SEC, led by No. 1 Arkansas.
“They’re big names and big programs,” A&T sophomore sprinter Trevor Stewart says, “but at the same time, though, it’s all about who’s working harder. Who’s trying to be more than just part of a program?”
Maybe so. But the measurable disparity in resources makes what the Aggies have done all the more remarkable. Consider this: A&T’s total track budget is right around $1.4 million ($642,802 men, $757,722 women).
That’s way, way less than their competition spends. Take Texas A&M and LSU for examples. Both have top-five programs in the men’s and women’s rankings.
LSU spent $5.55 million on track in the 2016-17 school year according to NCAA figures, and Texas A&M spent $5.57 million in 2015-16.
By comparison, A&T is getting plenty of bang for the buck. How do the Aggies do it?
“I’ve been asked that question a lot this year,” A&T coach Duane Ross says. “To be honest, I tell people the same thing: It’s all relative. I have everything I need.
“I may not have the same amount of money. I may not have an indoor facility. I may not be able to charter flights. But my administration and athletics director (Earl Hilton) work hard to make sure we’re in a position to succeed. Do I need all those things? No. Because I have what I need to be successful.”
What Ross has is sprinters. Good sprinters. Lots of good sprinters.
Of the 16 Aggies to advance to nationals, 14 run in the 100, 200 or 400 meters as individuals or as part of relay teams. The other two are 100- and 400-meter hurdlers.
So around A&T, speed is the name of the game.
Rowe placed fifth in the 200 meters at last year’s NCAA Championships in Oregon. He heads to Texas as a qualifier in the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay.
“We’ve worked harder and harder, fixing little things, sticking to the plan,” Rowe says. “Each year our focus gets sharper, we get stronger, we get faster.”
Rowe arrived at A&T with personal bests of 10.5 seconds in the 100 and 21.1 seconds in the 200. Four years later, those times are down to 10.05 and 20.1.
“Track athletes work hard to get just a little better,” Rowe says. “It’s not going to be a significant drop. It’s going to be a hundredth of a second or thousandths of a second. It’s all about executing your race plan.”
Stewart, a sophomore, is headed to nationals for a second consecutive year. He’s the top seed in the 400 meters, his qualifying time of 44.77 seconds the fastest in the nation this year.
Only Stewart and Houston’s Kahmari Montgomery have broken the 45-second barrier this season. And Stewart says the vibe around the NCAA Championships is different than other meets.
“It’s the eyes,” Stewart says. “You feel like there’s always someone watching you, which is a normal thing, I guess. I’ve dealt with that since high school (in Lortan, Va.), so it’s pretty normal to me. It’s not just that. It’s the amount of energy, too. In high school, I’d participate in New Balance Nationals, which are held here at A&T. But at NCAA Nationals, it’s everyone from your own family to other competitors to national brands. They’re all there, watching.”
Stewart’s personality helps him handle all those eyes. He’s placid and calm as he describes his passion for track (and track practices), the karate lessons he took as a child and the 22 tattoos on his arms, legs and torso (each with a story of its own).
“There’s always a metamorphosis that starts freshman year,” Stewart says. “You’re alone. You’re away from your family. You start to get into the groove of things. Once that happens, then you start adding things to it — sports and friends and classes and stuff like that — and that’s how I became who I am today. I’ve always been mild-mannered and semi-quiet. But knowing I can do a lot now, it shows me I don’t have to change who I am.”
A&T got a taste of success at last year’s NCAA Championships.
But this year feels different. This year, top-20 team finishes are expected and top-10s are within reach. This year, the national media has already reserved interview time with Stewart and senior Kayla White.
“We want to place as high as we can place,” Ross says. “When we speak to the team, we talk about winning a national championship, regardless of the numbers. We know other teams have more (athletes), but that just means we’ve got to pack a stronger punch. They understand.
“For example, in that 100 meters, Kayla and Cambrea (Sturgis) have to both place high. In the 200, Kayla, Cambrea and Kamaya (Debose-Epps) all have to be in the final an place high. We’ve got to maximize our opportunities.”
With success comes pressure. But Ross believes this group is ready.
“It’s much different this year,” Ross says. “For one thing, we’re taking more people. And the whole energy around this group feels totally different. This group is going in to win. That’s not to (imply) that small group last year didn’t try their best. But we didn’t have a great (NCAA) Regionals last season, and the energy wasn’t the same. … At nationals, some of the kids were tired and just ready to finish the season.
“But we learned from that. We made changes to our schedule and didn’t race too much. We kept them fresh and paid more attention to recovery and progressions. So this year, they went into conference fresh, went into Regionals fresh, and now we’re primed and ready for Nationals.”
The Aggies fly out Sunday night, from Greensboro to Atlanta to Austin.
Once in Texas, A&T gets a chance to match its speed with some of the nation’s biggest, best-funded college powerhouses.
“We’re not surprised. We’re proud of what we’ve done,” White says. “We’ve put in a lot of work. I know the big-time schools work, too. But we can’t say, ‘Oh, we’re just an HBCU and we can’t.’ I feel like sometimes we work harder because we’re trying to be better than them. We’re supposed to be up there on the list.”