By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
First at Joplin Memorial High School and then at Missouri Southern, Patty Vavra participated in the early years of girls athletics.
“My junior year in high school I believe was the first year they had a girls state track meet,” Vavra said. “The first girls district basketball championship was my senior year in 1976.
“We didn’t realize at the time what was happening, virtually a couple of years after Title IX had passed. We were able to have athletics for girls right before I left high school.”
Women’s athletics began at Missouri Southern at just about the same time, and Vavra came to Missouri Southern on a basketball scholarship.
“Sallie Beard recruited me,” she said. “I told her I’d like to be able to run track, too, and she started a track program my freshman year only for women. We had four women on the track team the first year in 1977. They were very successful before it was dropped around 1983. Several people who played basketball came out and ran track or were throwers. Before Sallie finished, they won a district championship in track.
“At the time I was at Missouri Southern, I was not on the ground floor of the basketball program, but definitely it was in its infancy. I had an opportunity to step in at Missouri Southern at the beginning of the track program and pretty close to the beginning of women’s basketball. It has evolved to such an extent ... I don’t think girls and women understand the opportunity they have today that once upon a time women didn’t have.”
Before high school, some of Vavra’s sports endeavors involved her older brother Mark.
“The things we had in Joplin were softball leagues and basketball leagues at Memorial Hall,” she said. “Outside of that, my brother was a year and a half older, and I would practice sometimes with my brother’s baseball team but never got to play in games.
“When I was a freshman in high school, I started playing for the Ozark Athletic softball team. ‘Red’ Gates started a women’s team, and I got an opportunity to play at a pretty competitive level in slow pitch softball. That was where I met Sallie. She was on that team.”
After playing basketball and running track four years for the Lions, Vavra was hired by the Carthage school district before she completed her student teaching there. She was hired as an elementary physical education teacher, and she coached high school girls track from the beginning for 14 years. She later coached girls and boys cross country for nine years, and she was head or assistant coach in every girls sport at the school except softball.
Then in 1994, Vavra returned to Missouri Southern as the women’s track coach. The program was revived in 1989, and Tom Rutledge coached both the men’s and women’s teams.
“In the back of my mind, I thought I might enjoy coaching collegiately,” she said. “Of course, I had a great experience at Missouri Southern, loved the institution, loved the experience I had as an athlete.
“I think it was the perfect job offer for me to make the move to the collegiate level. There were eight women on the team when I came here in 1994. It was a building process that Tom had begun, and now at this point in time, we’ve gained a tradition, we have great facilities, and we’ve had some success.
“I have great memories of Missouri Southern and have made lifelong friends. I hope I can pass that on to the athletes we have now and they have the same experience that I was fortunate enough to have — to gain a college degree and at the same time pursue my talents in athletics.”