"Forget about being a bad team. There was no team," Bullis head coach Joe Lee says of his first days at the Potomac, Md. school in 2013.
Less than four years ago, Lee remembers kids eating candy and drinking soda at practice, and using the track team as an easy way to fulfill the school's two-sport credit requirement while leaving early to go home.
"It was a mess."
This year is a different story.
In the past two weekends, the Bulldogs have swept the boys and girls sprint relay titles at the prestigious 110th annual NYRR Millrose Games in New York, and the Kentucky High School Invitational in Lexington. The girls rank U.S. No. 1 in the 4x400m, No. 2 in the 4x200m, and the boys rank U.S. No. 1 in the 4x200m, No. 4 in the 4x400m.
Lee, who worked for 16 years as a youth pastor and still speaks in the charismatic, authoritative manner of someone preaching to a rapt audience, has no patience for sloth or apathy in any aspect of life, and certainly not in track and field.
Bullis is a highly respected academic school in the affluent Maryland suburb of Potomac. The student body totals 830 from grades two through twelve, with a total of 550 potential student-athletes in the upper school. An athletic factory, Bullis is not. Since the school's founding in 1930, the Bulldogs had twice finished runners-up in the ISL Championship back in the early '90s, but hadn't come close since.
Until Lee showed up.
"I came in there and I told them we're going to win a championship," he says. "They had never won in the history of the school, but I gave them a vision of - instead of being a school that everyone laughs at, being a team that everyone admires."I didn't know if it would work. But it only takes a small percentage of the culture to change it."
We talked to the Bullis girls 4x200m relay after they set a Millrose Games record of 1:37.3, the second-fastest time in the nation this year.
Lee knows what a successful program looks like. He was part of the 1996 George Mason men's team that snapped the University of Arkansas' 12-year winning streak at the NCAA Indoor Championships. Lee is quick to enumerate the accomplishments of his teammates on that squad - "we had seven different Olympians" - and casts himself as an average-level athlete who had to dig deepest to make the relay pool.
"I was the guy on the team who was good in high school but just above average in college. I was ranked about U.S. No. 9 in the 400m in high school, made Junior Olympic finals every year. I was always there, never won, and I prided myself on not being the most talented but being the hardest worker.
"I just refused to quit."
Lee, who went to high school at St. Benedict's Prep in New Jersey, ran at Howard University for one year before transferring to George Mason, where he would learn about the intricacies of team dynamics and how to create a positive competitive environment.
"When I got to Mason, I realized you could take different people from different backgrounds who have different experiences in life and bring them together and create a family. At Millrose [last weekend], I saw a [teammate] I hadn't seen in 20 years and we hugged like we won the lottery. That's the kind of bond we all had.
"The other thing that intrigued me about being at Mason was being on a team with multiple levels of talent. Some good, some great, some world-class, and everyone with the same vision to be the best we could be.
"At Bullis, it's very similar. We have different talent levels but there's a level playing field because there are no superstars. We're one."
Lee has difficulty pinpointing one standout athlete without gushing about several others, though Kyla Lewis is a name that comes up quickly in our conversation. A sophomore when Lee took the helm at Bullis, Lewis flourished under her new coach and would go on to earn three individual ISL Championship titles. She overcame an ACL tear to earn a scholarship to Notre Dame, where she is now a sophomore.
Lewis and seven other girls -- the entirety of a very spare track team -- helped Bullis win the school's first-ever ISL Championship conference title in 2014, just one year after Lee started coaching.
The boys won their first IAC Championship conference title in 2015. [Boys and girls compete in different athletic conferences against mostly single-sex schools].
The Bulldogs attended their first-ever Penn Relays Carnival in 2013, where the girls 4x100m posted a time of 50.32, the 85th fastest time in the preliminary round, and the 4x400m ran 4:18.10, the 389th fastest time. The following year, the 4x100m qualified for the Small School Final.
In 2015 and 2016, Bullis qualified for the Championship of America finals in the 4x100m and 4x400m relays, a prestigious feat given the hundreds of top-notch American teams and Jamaican powerhouses that compete at Franklin Field every year.
Watch Bullis clock 3:46.31, the fastest qualifying time, at the Penn Relays Carnival in 2016. The Bulldogs would go on to run 3:46.52 for fifth place in the final.
"I believe every school in America has talent on their campus, but it's the responsibility of the coach to find that talent, help them believe in the process and train them to where the talent comes out," Lee says.
In 2014, there were just eight girls and three boys on the team. Now, 20 girls and 16 boys fill the roster.
The girls team has several marquee stars this year in Alexis Postell (US #14 55H), Masai Russell (US #10 500m, US #16 300m, US #22 200m), Leah Phillips (US #18 300m), Lauryn Harris (US #23 300m), Sierra Leonard (US #30 300m) and Ashley Seymour (US #25 55m), but the boys are finally catching up in the national rankings, thanks especially to the superstar sibling trio of junior Eric (US #3 300m, US #7 200m, US #18 400m), sophomore Austin, a long jump specialist who won the New Balance Nationals freshman title last year, and freshman Ashton Allen, who could one day be the best athlete of them all and split 48 seconds to anchor the winning 4x400m at Kentucky. Junior Gary Olandis, Jr. rounds out the relay pool.
Watch the UK High School Invitational boys 4x400m battle between Bullis and Michigan powerhouse Motor City TC:
The Allen brothers represent the roots of Bullis' success: identification as a family.
Lee is quick to deflect full credit for fostering this atmosphere. He says the team's success wouldn't be possible without four pillars: parents, coaches, student-athletes and the Bullis administration.
"A lot of people see the rankings but that's not our No. 1 goal," Lee says. "That's stuff on the outside. Our No. 1 goal is to be the closest family we can be."
Post-race interview with Lee after the Kentucky HS Invitational: