Looking back at 1998, Sonia Eudy can’t help but break into a smile. That year, she and the women’s cross country team of Missouri Southern State University won the first conference championship in program history. And she still marvels about the roster, full of hidden gems.

“I wasn’t a first- or second-place finisher even at the high school state meet,” Eudy said. “But (Patty Vavra) gave us a chance. She’d see a kid who hadn’t peaked yet in high school but would in college.”

In short, the recruiting strategy boosted the MSSU Women’s Cross Country and Track & Field Programs to among the most successful in the region. And their success is why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame proudly inducted the programs with the Class of 2018.

Vavra took over both programs in 1994 and was long assisted by Jamie Burnham. In fact, the 2007-2008 academic year saw MSSU take the MIAA Triple Crown by winning conference titles in cross country as well as indoor and outdoor track.

In cross country, the 1998 team was among seven to win the MIAA (Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association), with other titles coming in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2014. Cross country also won three consecutive NCAA D-II Regionals (2007-2009) and placed third at the D-II Championships in 2009.

Ten runners earned All-American honors and 35 earned All-Region, plus four were MIAA champions.

Meanwhile, the track program has produced more than 100 All-Americans in its history. It won MIAA Indoor titles in 2004 and 2008, while the Lions won the MIAA Outdoor in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

More than anything, the track & field program is a comeback story for the ages. Understand, it was only the fifth women’s sport when launched by then-basketball coach Sallie Beard in the spring of 1977 at the urging of Vavra, then a freshman.

However, the university discontinued women’s track & field in 1983.

“(Track) was a chance for women who wanted to participate, but they hadn’t had the opportunities in youth sports to really find what their strengths or interests were,” said Beard, the MSSU Women’s Athletic Director for 25 years before serving as Athletic Director from 2001-2009. “Even though they were young adults, they were starting out as true novices.”

Fortunately, the program rebooted in 1989, led by coach Tom Rutledge. Among his recruits was Tongula Steddum, a multiple All-American and a two-time national champion in the triple jump (1994-95) before competing in U.S. Olympic Trials.

In 1994, Vavra started a 22-year run as coach of both women’s track and cross country.

The 1998 cross country team offered a glimpse of what was to come. The team featured Eudy of Seneca and Amanda Politte of Potosi. That year, Eudy won the MIAA championship and was the NCAA D-II runner-up, her third All-American award. Politte placed ninth in the MIAA race.

“We worked together as a team,” Eudy said. “We had a focus. It was like, ‘This is our time to shine.’”

Politte proudly looked back the programs’ successes, saying with a smile, “I think we started something – at least I hope we did.”

Many standouts were from Missouri.

DaLana Rutledge, Vavra’s first recruit in 1994, was a two-time All-American. Rolla’s Kimi Reed was a multiple All-American in track and cross country, and a member of the 2009 NCAA D-II third-place cross country team along with Linn’s Ashley Wichman, a two-time All-American. Reeds Spring’s Jessica Tallman was an eight-time All-American, including a national champion in the hammer throw. Carthage’s Nicole Green was a six-time All-American in the shot put. St. Clair junior Emily Presley of St. Clair currently is a three-time pole vault national champion.

Carthage’s Mary Still, a six-time All-American and part of the 2004 MIAA Indoor championship team, said the women’s track team evolved from individual winners in the early 2000s to a full-blown team.

“From about my sophomore to junior year, we started picking up momentum. You could see the attitude change to, ‘We can do this,’” Still said. “And then we started winning outdoor championships, which is a tough thing to do.”

Additionally, more than 100 of Vavra’s athletes alone earned Academic All-MIAA, while more than 20 were either Academic All-District or All-American. In 2010 and 2017, Southern owned the highest GPA in the nation among teams attending the NCAA D-II Indoor.

“The program wasn’t just finding people who could run fast times but who also could excel in the classroom,” Still said.

What a run it has been.