CARY - The North Carolina A&T men's and women's cross country teams got a chance to pull out their rulers on Saturday. What they discovered was the men, even without two of their better runners, measure up nicely with other historically black colleges and universities.
Meanwhile, the women's confidence is constantly growing as they try to build toward being on and eventually surpassing the elite status Hampton holds.
On Saturday at the Great American Cross Country Festival at the Wake Med Soccer Park, the A&T men finished second in the HBCU Robert Shumake Classic Division, while the women finished fifth. Sophomore Saeed Jones was the Aggies' top finisher and placed seventh overall in 26:56.4. Fellow sophomore Christian Harrison had the second fastest time for A&T as he finished in 28:23 to place 21st.
It was an especially satisfying finish for the men since three of the teams there - Norfolk State, Hampton and N.C. Central - also competed. All five of A&T's male runners recorded personal records. Perennial MEAC power Norfolk State won the 8k event by placing four runners in the top 4.
"I think we're a lot closer to them than we have been years past," said A&T director of track field and programs Duane Ross, referring to the Spartan men. "We're not just content to just give it (the MEAC title) to them."
Closing the gap may be made easier when veterans Paris Simmons and Darius Bogertey return to the men's lineup. Both men are suffering from tendinitis in the knee. It's the left knee for Simmons and the right for Bogertey.
The women have a little more catching up to do. They finished fifth with 154 points. Four ladies did post personal best times with senior Kristin Rush being the exception. She has no reason to be ashamed, however. For the third straight week, she had the fastest time among the female Aggies as she finished fourth overall. Her time of 19:23.5 was a season best. Freshman Janay Ferrell followed her in the line of Aggie finishers with a seventh place time of 19:47.4. Hampton won the women's 4k event with 52 points. Three of the Pirates runners placed in the top 10.
"We're not quite there yet with the women," said Ross. "We knew when we pulled the track ladies away from cross country, we were still a class or two away from being up there with a team like Hampton. But I still expect us to compete. I think we can still get our times lower and thus lower our scores for the MEAC meet."
The performances were certainly more impressive than the Aggies' outing two weeks ago at the Elon Invitational when both teams finished a distant third to Elon and UNC Greensboro. Ross, A&T's director of track and field programs, said the time off gave the coaching staff an opportunity to continually remind the runners what the expectations are for the cross country programs.
"I think the biggest thing today is that they responded," said Ross. "They responded to what we were telling them."
For two weeks the Aggie runners had to listen to one simple message. We are not doormats.
"They have to be competitive no matter who we step onto the course with," Ross added. "We're serious about turning A&T cross country into championship programs. If someone beats us, they're going to have to take it from us. We're not giving anyone anything anymore."
A change in strategy was also in order on Saturday. Jones led a team of runners in a more aggressive approach. The take charge approach didn't seem like a plausible one as a steady rain fall turned the beautifully landscaped lawn at the Wake Med Soccer Park into a muddy mess. Both teams still executed the game plan, which helped them control the pace against their HBCU foes.
The Aggies will get another chance to see what their standing is with the MEAC's best. But this time, a championship will be on the line as they will all gather in Princess Anne, Md., for the MEAC Championships on Oct. 27. Until then, the Aggies will prepare for the Oct. 6 Hagan Stone Cross Country Classic in Greensboro.