Andrea Martin recognizes the challenges presented by having low numbers on the Hannibal girls tennis team.

The senior sees some perks, too.

“It's good because, you know, I get an entire row seat in the bus for myself,” Martin joked. “But a small team is also good because you get to know everybody else more personally because there are less of you. They become your family.”

Bob Catalpa takes the helm of the Lady Pirates following the retirement of longtime coach Jay Johnson. For Catalpa's first year, the program features 12 players, the minimum needed for conference matches.

Five of Hannibal's top six players from a year ago graduated, leaving a void for up-and-coming talent to fill.

“Our team has shown a lot of potential this year,” said senior Ashlyn Nichols, the squad's top returning player. “We have a fairly small team this year, but greatness isn't always in numbers. Our team has a really great work ethic and we're really excited for the season.”

Hannibal went 7-5 during the 2016 regular season before falling to Rock Bridge in the Class 2 District 8 semifinals. Entering the 2017 campaign, the Lady Pirates hope to continue their success in the North Central Missouri Conference, in which the squad went 6-1 last fall.

Hannibal opens the season Aug. 21 with a home match against Fulton. The Lady Pirates host six matches before September, a month the squad mostly will spend on the road for conference competition.

“Marshall and Kirksville are usually pretty good,” Catalpa said of his NCMC scouting report. “Moberly's had good numbers. But I'm not sure what to expect year in, year out with conference. Last year, we won quite a few conference matches, so we'll see how we do.

“We open with Fulton, and that'll give us an idea of where we stand conference-wise.”

Four rising seniors lead the way this season. Aside from Nichols and Martin, Emilee Carleton and Kylee Johnson return as upperclassmen.

Martin, who began playing as a freshman, mentioned the team's preseason conditioning should pay dividends during the grind of the season, which often includes three matches a week.

“We're going to have to give it our hardest this year,” she said. “We're going to have to be strong and accept our losses, but we also have to celebrate wins too. We did lose quite a few seniors (from last year), but that doesn't mean we can't step up to the plate and do our best.”

Ten of the 12 team members played tennis in past seasons, with the only exceptions freshman Jaspreet Kaur and junior Yudsara Corredor.

The weeks leading up to the season have been filled with internal competition for the Lady Pirates, who use a series of challenge matches to determine varsity rankings. For NCMC matches, the Lady Pirates must fill 12 varsity spots, meaning every member of the team likely will play at the top level. Non-conference matches include only six varsity competitors.

Nichols, who is expected to be Hannibal's No. 1 player but still must earn that position, has impressed her new head coach thus far.

“Ashlyn is the one who's got the most experience,” Catalpa said. “She's been top-six at least the past two years. She'll definitely use her experience to help the other ladies. She hits the ball hard.”

Nichols has one personal goal in mind for 2017.

“Honestly, I would really like to go state this year,” she explained. “That's always been my goal since freshman year. I'm just shooting to do my best in every single match, taking it a match at a time and a point at a time, because ultimately that's where I think success lies.”

While this season will prove a challenge, the top returner has high expectations for what her team can accomplish.

“We just barely have enough for the varsity team this year,” she said, “but I think everyone's really excited and we're going to make it happen.”