ELON - Cross country matters. North Carolina A&T's new director of track and field programs Duane Ross not only expresses this sentiment verbally, but his facial expression speaks volumes.
After watching the A&T men's and women's cross country teams both finish third among three Division I schools at the Elon Invitational on Saturday, Ross looks as about upset as a basketball coach does when a player does not block out or a football coach does when a player misses a block.
He wants to drive home the point to his athletes that cross country is not just two sports A&T uses to meet the required 14 varsity sports needed to be a Division I athletic program. That mindset is unacceptable to Ross. Cross country should be the standard bearer for Aggie Athletics.
"I thought we could have run better today," said Ross as he shakes his head searching for the words to say. "Our kids didn't come out and compete the way I would like them to. We have to explain to them, plain and simple; we've got to step it up. I think right now we're still working on building their confidence. We're trying to get them to believe they can run competitively at this level. I think once they start believing in that, I think once they break through that ceiling, they'll be fine."
To show his commitment to the cross country, Ross does not have any of his sprinters, jumpers or hurdlers competing in cross country. Those type of athletes bolster the cross country roster, which is why it was done in the past. But Ross wants the cross country program to be a true cross country program. Therefore, he only wants distance runners competing. The downsizing of the roster may sting a little this season, but it is a part of Ross' overall outlook for the program.
"My vision from day one is to build a true distance program here at A&T," said Ross, who added that he chose distance coach Joel Pearson from a list of 30 highly-qualified applicants. "Putting hurdlers and jumpers on the cross country team is not conducive to what we're trying to do and what we're trying to build. The ones you see out here today are distance runners."
While the Aggies' past successes in men's and women's outdoor track and field has been impressive with numerous regional and national appearances, Ross desires to see all six programs strive to the point where there is talk of Aggies reaching the NCAA Nationals in cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field. If all six programs are competing at a high level, it will make recruiting for those six programs an easier task.
"We're a Division I school, but when people think D-1, A&T is hardly ever in the conversation unless we're competing against another MEAC school," said sophomore Saeed Jones after his 28:35 time helped him finish 15th overall and first among A&T runners.
Jones sees his time improve by more than a minute from last season's 29:47 at Elon. "If you have a complete program, there are so many possibilities," said Jones. "If I remember correctly, no (historically black college or university) has ever made nationals in NCAA cross country. If we could do that, it would be a major accomplishment."
Christian Harrison runs the course on Saturday in 29:42 as he finishes 16th a year after finishing the same course in 28:30. Freshman teammate Robert Dula finishes 17th in 32:06.
"There were a lot of turns, you really didn't know what was coming next," said Harrison about the Elon course. "The pack separated quickly in terms of the runners in the front, the runners in the middle and the runners in the back. It was hard to gauge where you were throughout the course. I knew there were going to be some pretty good runners. It was definitely a fast pace, especially coming out of the third mile. That's when everybody started to part."
UNC Greensboro's Abraham Kemboi wins first place in the men's 8k with a time of 25:29, but the Elon men win the team competition by placing three runners in the top 5. On the women's side, UNCG's Chelsea Sumney takes first place in 17:44. The Elon women also take the team title with three top-5 finishes. Senior Kristin Rush's 20:50 paces the Aggie women. Freshman Janay uses her time of 21:27 to finish 18th.
Harrison believes he and his Aggie teammates are closer than most observers think, to being able to compete with the likes of UNCG and Elon.
"We've got to keep working hard," said Harrison. "If there is a performance that we have that we're not happy with, we need to be upset about it. We need to work harder. We have to keep encouraging each other and keep our heads high."
The Aggies are back in action in two weeks when they have another tough test at the Great American Cross Country Festival in Cary, N.C., on Sept. 29.