When Milligan Grinstead ’02 began running cross country for Yale in the fall of 1998, the team was facing an uphill course.

The autumn of her freshman year was a bleak one for Grinstead and her teammates, as the women’s cross country team struggled. Since then, however, the team has been on a meteoric rise, transforming into an Ivy League powerhouse and a national presence over the course of Grinstead’s career.

“Over the past four years, the team has become increasingly more focused and intense,” said Grinstead, the team’s captain this year. “We went from finishing close to last at the Heptagonal Championships to being back-to-back Heps champions.”

In 2001, the Elis maintained the success of their breakthrough 2000 season. A trio of seniors — Grinstead; Alicia Rapson ’02, who had to sit out the season due to injury; and Alison Zitron ’02 — enjoyed another year of winning as the Bulldogs successfully repeated as winners of both the H-Y-P Championship and the Heptagonal Championship (consisting of the eight Ivy League teams and the Naval Academy). In a repeat appearance at the NCAA Championships, the Yale women finished in 13th place, slightly off their seventh place finish a year ago.

Individually, Kate and Laura O’Neill ’03 had outstanding seasons as they earned All-American honors for a second consecutive year for their performance at the NCAA Championships. Kate O’Neill finished 11th out of 249 runners with a time of 20:58 at the NCAAs in Furman, S.C., while Laura O’Neill took 26th place with a time of 21:13.

Kate and Laura O’Neill also finished second and fifth, respectively, at the NCAA District I Regional Qualifier. As a team, the Bulldogs finished fifth to earn a berth at the NCAA Championships.

At the Heptagonal Championships, the O’Neill twins paced the team to the second straight victory, with Kate O’Neill taking the individual title and Laura O’Neill finishing third.

“Our success has a lot to do with two runners: Kate and Laura O’Neill,” Grinstead said. “Cross-country is a team sport, but these girls have contributed more performance success than any other members. They are consistently spectacular, two of the best runners in the country who give their best performances when it matters.”

Head coach Mark Young echoed Grinstead’s assessment of the impact of the O’Neill twins and the junior class as a whole.

“The additions of Amanda Brewster ’03, Lindsay Mitchell ’03, and Kate and Laura O’Neill made the biggest change to the program in the past four years,” Young said. “The collective improvement of those four from freshman to sophomore year was dramatic and the team has been exceptional since.”

After sluggish seasons in 1998 and 1999, the Bulldogs burst onto the national scene in 2000. The Yale runners captured the New England Championship, the H-Y-P Championship and the Heptagonal Championship. The squad’s seventh place finish at NCAAs capped off a brilliant season.

“I think the most exciting year was 2000,” Mitchell said. “We turned our previous seventh in the Ivy League [at the 1999 Heps] into a seventh at Nationals.”

Five Eli runners made the All-Ivy team for 2000 as a result of their performance at the 2000 Heptagonal Championships. With the Elis placing five runners in the top 14, the Bulldogs ran away with the title.

“I think our biggest achievements [over the past four years] have been winning the Heptagonal League title for the past two years,” Laura O’Neill said. “We won in 2000 after having come in third-to-last the year before.”

With the team’s core returning next season, a third consecutive Heptagonal title and third straight appearance at the NCAA Championships are within reach.

“With all of the major principals back and the addition of the two of the best freshman in the country, we expect to be very good again next year,” Young said.

As Grinstead and her classmates graduate this year, not only can they take with them memories of Heptagonal championships and NCAA appearances, but they can also enjoy the satisfaction of leaving the Yale cross country team in much better shape than they found it.