Family affair for NC A&T, NC State at NCAA track championships

The Aggies finished in the top four in both the men’s and women’s overall rankings, and NC State’s Elly Henes won a national title

North Carolina A&T's Randolph Ross wins the men's 400 meters during the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships, Friday, June 11, 2021, at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. (Thomas Boyd / AP Photo)

Athletic teams often refer to themselves as a family. But for two college athletes from North Carolina last weekend, the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championship meet in Eugene, Oregon, truly was a family affair.

Not only did NC State distance runner Elly Henes and NC A&T sprinter Randolph Ross win national championships for programs coached by their parents, but they also matched the accomplishments of those parents, both of whom also won titles during their college careers.

State’s Laurie Henes won the 5,000 meters, the same event as her daughter, while running for the Wolfpack in 1991. A&T’s Duane Ross brought home his title in 110-meter hurdles for Clemson four years later.

The significance of that synergy hit home for the younger Henes almost as soon as she crossed the finish line in a time of 15:28.05, about six-tenths of a second ahead of Notre Dame’s Katie Wasserman.

“It’s incredible. It means the world to me,” Henes said in a postrace interview on ESPN after becoming the first State runner to win a national championship since Kristin Price in the 10,000 meters in 2002. “Having her as my coach and having her throughout my running career, it’s like the perfect fairy tale ending. You couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Henes, a nine-time All-American and five-time ACC champion in track and cross-country, ran a tactical race in her final event for the Wolfpack.

The senior from Cary bided her time just off the lead until the final turn of the 12½-lap race, when she sprinted to the front, pulled away from Wasserman and the rest of the field, and happily flashed the Wolfpack sign in triumph as she broke the tape.

Ross was even more dominant in winning his individual championship. After running shoulder-to-shoulder with Aggies teammate Trevor Stewart for the first half of the race, the speedy sophomore left everyone else on the track behind.

He was still pulling away as he crossed the finish line in a time of 43.85, fastest in the world this season, the second-fastest ever run at an NCAA championship and the third-fastest in collegiate history. Stewart finished third.

The victory came three months after Ross finished second to LSU’s Noah Williams at the NCAA indoor meet and established the A&T star as a favorite to make the U.S. Olympic team for the Tokyo Games later this summer.

“This young man is special,” Duane Ross said of his son on a post-meet Zoom. “He’s nowhere near his full potential. I’m so proud of him and his national championships as a father and a coach.”

Randolph Ross gave his dad even more reason to be proud by combining with teammates Stewart, Daniel Stokes and Akeem Sirleaf to win the national championship in the 4-x-400 meter relay in a time of 3:00.92.

The younger Ross also helped A&T to a third-place finish in the 4-x-100 relay while his sister Jonah was part of the foursome that finished third in the women’s 4-x-100 race.

The anchor leg of that women’s team was run by sophomore Cambrea Sturgis, who pulled off a national championship sweep by winning both the 100- and 200-meter sprints.

Her time of 10.74 in the 100 is the fastest all-weather time in NCAA history and the 11th-fastest ever for a woman. She then out-leaned High Point native Tamara Clark of Alabama to the finish the 200 in a time of 22.12.

With her victory, Sturgis became the first female to win both the 100 and 200 national championships in the same year since Ariana Washington of Oregon in 2016.

“Even though there were other good competitors, I knew I was just as good as them,” Sturgis said. “I just went out there and ran my race. … It just shows NC A&T can be an elite school and we can run with the best.”

The final team standings bear that out.

Despite having only nine athletes competing in both the men’s and women’s events, the Aggies finished among the top four in the nation in both meets, the only school to earn that distinction.

The men amassed 35 points to finish third behind LSU and Oregon. It was the highest finish ever for a Division I Historically Black College or University. The women placed fourth behind Southern Cal, Texas A&M and Georgia with a team total of 31 points.

“We are an HBCU. We will always be an HBCU,” Duane Ross said. “That is who we are, that is our history and we’re proud of that. But that acronym needs to be retired if people are going to continue to misuse it. It’s almost like they are saying you guys are good for an HBCU. No, we’re good, period.

“I think some of our competition is still struggling with the fact that we are better. I know a lot of people are surprised about what we did this weekend, but they shouldn’t be.”