It's not uncommon to hear high school athletes arriving at North Carolina track meets on Saturday mornings pondering with others over one looming question: is Southeast Raleigh coming to this meet?
"When a meet is being held, people look for Southeast Raleigh to show up at the meet," said former Southeast Raleigh head track and field coach Elizabeth Gary.
There's something awe-inspiring about seeing the Southeast Raleigh Bulldogs walking into the stadium, many toting around sleek New Balance Nationals bags and wearing brightly colored NCHSAA state champion t-shirts. And the athletes back up that championship-reputation with their performances; when Southeast athletes take the track, spectators peel their eyes away from their phones and end their various conversations to watch the kids in green seemingly float towards the finish line.
This has been the case for years as Southeast Raleigh has dominated high school track and field at both the state and national levels throughout the 2000s. The program owns an impressive 16 team state track and field titles to its name, five won by the boys team and 11 captured by the girls. Add another 79 individual event state titles, a world youth record holder, and a national high school track and field athlete of the year into the mix, and Southeast Raleigh has developed and solidified its reputation as one of the most historically dominant high school track programs around.
As Gary puts it, success breeds success, which has helped develop a stellar high school track and field program with a storied history.
"The kids come into the program with [an] expectation because they know what has taken place before they got there," said Gary. "The expectation is that [an incoming athlete is] going to be successful because we have a rich history that goes back many years."
Destined to be great
It wasn't long after Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School's opening in 1997 that people began to realize the potential the school had to produce a strong track and field program
"Southeast Raleigh seemed destined to be great in track from the very start," said hall-of-fame former Raleigh News and Observer high school sports reporter Tim Stevens via email.
The Southeast Raleigh athletic department took off under the direction of its first athletic director, Frank Davis, who has his own place in North Carolina track and field fame. Davis helped found the Durham Striders Youth Association 1975, now one of the oldest youth track and field club teams in the nation.
With Davis steering the ship, it seemed that track and field would most likely gain a lot of support at Southeast Raleigh. "Track was going to be important at any school where he was athletic director," said Stevens.
Over the next several years, the school began to develop and produce state-caliber athletes. The girls 4x800m team brought home the program's first ever state individual event title in 2000, winning with a time of 9:26.84 at the outdoor state meet. This was just the beginning for Southeast Raleigh relay teams; the program would eventually become known for its outstanding relay teams, some of which have recently won national titles.
Many other athletes followed suit, and soon enough Southeast Raleigh had made a name for itself. The team followed up previous stellar state meet performances with its first team state title, won by the boys team at the outdoor championships in 2004.
And then along came Gabby Mayo, whose dominance helped make Southeast Raleigh a more widely-known name across the country in the mid-2000s. The standout sprinter and hurdler was named the Most Valuable Performer by the NCHSAA at the 2005, 2006, and 2007 4A Outdoor State Championships, and was even named the High School Athlete of the Year by Track and Field News. Mayo also helped the Southeast Raleigh girls team capture its first state title at the indoor state championships in 2006, and led the team to 2 more team championships at the outdoor state meet in 2006 and the indoor meet in 2007.
Mayo enjoyed contributing to an important team in the school's history. "I was happy that I was able to make history for the school and myself," said Mayo. "I would say [that at] Southeast, we had a good team overall."
More elite athletes would follow in Mayo's footsteps, including Wayne Davis, who starred for Southeast Raleigh from 2006-2009 and set the world junior record in the 110m hurdles in 2009. Davis later competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics, representing Trinidad and Tobago.
Although the first handful of years of Southeast Raleigh's history included noteworthy wins, athletes, and championships, Gary said that she thinks the program really started to transform in 2009. That year, both the boys and girls won the indoor state championships, an unprecedented feat in the area. "To my knowledge, I know no other Wake County school had done that," said Gary.
From 2009 until now, Southeast Raleigh has claimed 10 state titles, its most recent titles coming at the indoor meet this year, and continues to shuffle athletes through a revolving door to New Balance Nationals.The program has become a sprint relay powerhouse, never failing to produce clean teams on the biggest of stages. Just last season, the Southeast Raleigh boys 4x200m team secured a national championship at New Balance Indoor Nationals, a high point for the program's relay events.
Other notable athletes from recent years include recently graduated seniors Kyna Robinson, who holds the state indoor record in the 500m among all classifications, and Eric Haddock, who boasts three state meet titles in the long jump.
Each year seems the same: train, compete, win, repeat. This methodical formula for winning has put Southeast Raleigh on the map as one of the best programs in the country, something the program doesn't take for granted.
"I do believe that our track team has been fortunate that we really could compete on the level that we've been able to compete on," said Gary.
A winning culture
There's no doubt that consistently winning is nothing short of exciting-just ask class of 2019 hurdler Sierra Fletcher, who's won numerous state titles in the hurdle events and contributed to team state titles during her time with the Bulldogs.
"Just winning, it feels good," said Fletcher.
One could go on and on listing all of the athletes that have been transformative in creating a winning culture for the Southeast Raleigh track program. There's Mayo and Davis from the early 2000s, as well as dominant hurdler Fletcher and star jumper Haddock, to name just a few.
But it takes time to develop those impactful athletes, and Southeast Raleigh is strongly committed to the process. Gary has always believed that Southeast Raleigh track and field has been extremely fortunate to be in the situation it's in, winning titles and producing sought-after talent, but all of that starts with a key element: quality leadership.
"We've been fortunate because good coaches typically want to be a part of good programs," said Gary.
Some of the best have found themselves coaching at Southeast Raleigh over the years. Eddie Harden, who served as head coach in the early 2000s, was instrumental in developing the program, and Gary followed suit after him, coaching from 2005 to 2018. Notable assistant coaches have helped train athletes over the years, including current Hillside head track coach Jason Smoots and even U.S. champion and North Carolina native Johnny Dutch. Current hurdles coach Terry Reese Jr., a former N.C. State and professional U.S. hurdler, has created championship-caliber athletes like Fletcher as a member of the coaching staff since 2016.
"The school creates a climate of track excellence," said Stevens.
These coaches have dedicated themselves to the game of development and learning about their athletes. Though some athletes often walk into Southeast Raleigh with the skills and talent needed to succeed, many don't. Current head track coach Anthony Williams said that developing individually-tailored training and coaching is crucial at Southeast Raleigh.
"It's all about [the coaches] knowing [their] kids, realizing what they can and cannot do, find their weaknesses, work on their weaknesses, and really elevate their strengths," said Williams.
That commitment each coach has to each and every athlete does mean that the training is no joke-the coaches constantly give feedback and create tough workouts. But Fletcher said that although the training is intense, it's extremely beneficial in the long run.
"[The coaches are] always on you, of course because they want you to succeed," said Fletcher.
Once athletes begin to improve and match the speed of their elite teammates, that's when the winning starts to happen. "After that's open, it's easy smooth sailing from there because then everything they've bought into in the program [yields results]," said Williams. "They understand what they can do, they understand what we see as coaches in them and then there's nothing but execute and perform."
It's this reputation that makes Southeast Raleigh an attractive high school for students and parents all over the Raleigh area. As a magnet school, 30 percent of its student body consists of students accepted on an applicant basis. This opened the door for many student-athletes who sought to gain a quality education supplied by the magnet programs, as well as join a championship track and field program where they knew they could succeed.
"Kids came from other parts of the city because they wanted to be with friends and they wanted to be a part of the different magnet programs that Southeast was offering," said Gary. "But a big piece of that was also that they wanted to be a part of what they knew was a successful track program."
Siblings and cousins of former athletes have followed in the footsteps of their relatives over the years and taken their talents to Southeast Raleigh. Others have come over from the local Track Xplosion youth track and field team. As kids have cycled through the program year after year, Southeast Raleigh continued to rack up wins.
One fact has always remained clear: Southeast Raleigh develops strong and disciplined athletes.
"It was a breeding ground for successful track athletes, everything from the sprints, to the hurdles, to the field events, to the mid-distance and distance," said Gary.
Unity leads to success
It's one thing to have a winning culture, but it's another thing to build a united team environment. Southeast Raleigh sets itself apart as one of the few programs to successfully do both.
Team unity became a central element of the program back when Harden and Gary led the Bulldogs after they noticed that individual teams in the area such as the Wakefield girls and Knightdale had been dominating the local track and field circuit. Instead of creating one strong girls team and one strong boys team, the two wanted to mesh everyone together into one powerful Southeast Raleigh team. Once they implemented this idea, the program soared to new heights.
"Once we put the two teams together and we said 'We are Southeast Raleigh track and field team,' it took off," said Gary.
What followed was numerous state titles, a success to say the least.
The boys and girls of Southeast Raleigh train, compete, and bond together. This past season, all of the athletes even gathered together before meets at chosen restaurants to have team meals, minus the coaches. "We do stuff together as a team effort outside of track," said Fletcher.
At each meet, you'll most likely see athletes yelling loudly as they watch their teammates sprint past them on the track. And when the boys and girls teams both won the 4A indoor state meet back in February, nothing but pure delight filled JDL Fast Track as the Bulldogs celebrated their combined effort.
The bond the athletes and the coaches have created makes the program special.
"Everybody's just like a family up there. Of course family, they argue, they have issues, but at the end of the day, everybody's just one," said Fletcher.
The family consists of the athletes and coaches, as well as parents and the entire Southeast Raleigh community. Southeast Raleigh's national success has brought recognition to the school located just outside of downtown Raleigh, and the school's faculty and student body have showed support in return.
The track and field team remains the only program at Southeast Raleigh to have won multiple state titles, although other athletic teams such as the girls basketball team continue to make strong pushes at the state level. Nonetheless, students and friends flock out to track meets weekly to support their talented peers. "They're some of the elite kids in the United States, and they come out. They support them," said Williams.
Support goes out as far as the surrounding community, with local sponsors and donors often supplying financial resources for student-athletes who may not be able to pay for trips to acclaimed meets such as New Balance Indoor Nationals in New York City.
The family culture has developed a team like no other, and Gary firmly believes that the Southeast Raleigh program wouldn't be where it is today without all of the necessary background elements that have been established.
"It's been a blessing, it really has," said Gary.
Eyes on the podium
This weekend, Southeast Raleigh athletes will travel to Greensboro looking to grab more All-American finishes at New Balance Outdoor Nationals yet again.
Both the boys and girls will look to secure podium finishes in the Championship 4x100m and 4x200m relays on Saturday and Sunday. The boys team in particular will hope to possibly finish as national champions again in the 4x200m as they did this past indoor season.
Southeast Raleigh will also field numerous athletes in individual events. Star freshman Jahzara Hart will look to make her name known at the national level, competing in both the Championship 200m and the Emerging Elite 100m. Teammate Ani Judd will join Hart in the Championship 200m, South Carolina-bound Kyna Robinson will take on the Emerging Elite 400m, and sophomore Autumn Judd will look to place in the Emerging Elite Discus. On the boys side, junior Romell McRae is set to compete in the Emerging Elite 100m.
This may be what seems like the hundredth time Southeast Raleigh has made an appearance at the top meet in the country. However, the program continues each opportunity to allow athletes to shine on the national stage, whether it be in South Carolina at Bojangles' Track and Field Classic or in the Big Apple at the Armory for New Balance Indoor Nationals.
"Just the opportunity to take the kids to those type of meets has been great in itself," said Gary.
But for Gary and the rest of the program, the opportunities don't end once you step off of the track. Southeast Raleigh track and field provides positive life experiences to students, experiences and lessons they'll keep with them for the rest of their lives.
Some athletes like Mayo and Davis find themselves competing on the world stage. Other graduates go on to train at succeed at the collegiate level. But for some, high school track and field provides discipline and opportunities they may never have received had they not joined the Southeast Raleigh program.
It's these experiences that Gary looks back on most fondly, taking athletes to Times Square and out to eat at Dallas BBQ while attending New Balance Nationals, and even flying athletes up to Penn Relays one year to spectate; the kids were so content on not coming home from their trip to Pennsylvania that they even contemplated skipping their own prom.
For some, traveling to those events may be a rare opportunity to leave the Raleigh area. Track and field at Southeast Raleigh isn't just an extracurricular activity-it provides stability and comfort.
"[Track] was a lifesaver for a lot of the kids," said Gary.
Athletes past and present continue to support one another, whether it be giving simple training advice or helping teammates with schoolwork. Students embody the values instilled in them through their training outside of the track and field spectrum. "Off the track, they highly affect the lives of every single last one that comes out to run track because we really try to keep them humble and ready," said Williams.
It all started with Gabby Mayo and Wayne Davis, whose star qualities helped people remember the name "Southeast Raleigh." "I'm very happy that I was able to do that," said Mayo. "That's the whole point, to open doors for future generations."
Now one can confidently say that Southeast Raleigh has become one of the best programs in track and field history, and the school is likely to continue to bring home championships and fashion athletes with New Balance Nationals backpacks and state champion shirts, just as the program has done for upwards of 15 years.
"I get excited when I hear that things are still going the way that we want them to go," said Gary. "It makes my heart smile."