Falcons thrilled with new track

- N&O Staff Writer

RALEIGH -- George Williams studied the stop watch tied around his neck during a track and field practice last week. Every so often, the legendary St. Augustine's track and field coach glanced at the sprinters barreling down the straight.

"Turn it on," he instructed.

It was mostly a familiar scene for the former U.S. Olympic coach, who has led the school's women's and men's track and field teams to 31 national titles during his 35-year career at St. Aug's. Yet last Wednesday there was something significantly different about practice.

For the first time in three years, the Falcons were jogging, sprinting and jumping on their home track.

They had been without a home facility while construction was completed on the state-of-the-art George Williams Athletic Complex. Student-athletes used the new facility - which is scheduled for official completion in late September - for the first time last Monday. The complex features a nine-lane track, an artificial turf football field and a custom scoreboard.

Current members of the track team were relieved to practice on campus after several years of busing to local colleges and high schools for practices.

With the NCAA Division II national outdoor championships approaching, the Falcons were thrilled to plant their spikes on a world-class track. Many of the seniors remembered the hard, crater-filled surface the team practiced on before.

"This is a great improvement compared to that one," St. Aug's senior Orolando Duffus said.

"It took us back to the older days when we had a track," Williams added. "This is a little different than what we had. This is the Rolls-Royce of it all. This is probably one of the best tracks in the whole east coast."

When the athletic complex is finally complete - updated with grandstand and press box - St. Aug's will have built an $8 million facility that will serve its 16 sports programs, though mainly football and track and field.

The track, at a cost of $2 million, has nine 48-inch lanes and four sand jumping pits. It is designed to host collegiate and high school track and field meets. Its ISM 2000 rubberized surface is considered one of the best for the sport.

"All of the bells and whistles," said Marc Newman, the school's vice president of institutional advancement. He has spearheaded the project.

Newman said the old track wasn't up to standards for the quality of the school's track program and coach. He pointed to the fact that last year's men's team won a Division II national outdoor championship without a track.

"It is sorely deserved for this track program that's done so much for the college," Newman said. "It's sorely deserved for the community."

Starting in 2006, the city of Raleigh and Wake County combined to contribute $1 million to the facility project over 10 years.

St. Aug's officials said they look forward to attracting world-class track and field events to the facility, including possibly NCAA meets and USA Track and Field training sessions.

"It's going to be some fast times run in here," Williams said. "I'm happy with the whole facility. I can't wait until we get some bleachers and a press box in."

Williams has led the Falcons to over 150 individual Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association track and field and cross country titles. He was also head coach of the 2004 men's U.S. Olympic track and field team that competed in Athens, Greece.

The men's outdoor team is ranked No. 3 in Division II by the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. The Falcons look to defend their title on May 26-28 at the national championships in Turlock, Calif.

"He deserves this track," St. Aug's senior Sheena Johns said of Williams.

Meanwhile, members of the track program - former and current - were happily using their new facility. They recalled not long ago running around campus to simulate miles and sprinting in a nearby field, using whatever available resource to continue training after their busted track was razed.

Last week, with the white lines painted in place on their new track, the collective sentiment was, "Awesome."

robinson@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4781