The Hannibal cross country team sets its gaze on what it can achieve by season's end but doesn’t want to lose sight of the day-to-day process.

Sure, it's a cliché.

But for top returner Ayden Nichols, who joined two returning teammates at the Class 4 sectional a year ago, the two go hand-and-hand. 

“I've been training all summer long, and I'm excited to have a good season,” the senior said. “The unexpected happens in cross country. You could have a small injury that can flop your whole season. This year, I would like to see myself do well at state, but more importantly, just run with my teammates and see them all improve.”

Coach Charlie Newland's program features a dozen runners for the upcoming campaign, nine of which are girls.

Junior Autumn Bigsby and sophomore Claudia Nichols return for Hannibal after both earning all-North Central Missouri Conference and all-district honors in 2016. Kyleigh Gibbs and Elle Hudelson also are back after strong seasons a year ago capped by all-NCMC recognition.

Three freshmen are out for the Lady Pirates this season, including Andrew Bryant, Alexia Gonzalez and Molly Large. 

Also in the mix are returner Ruby Roisum and newcomer Alayna Pipkin, who comes to the team with an all-state pedigree as a sprinter. 

“Some of the girls are starting to buy into the offseason and they genuinely like each other,” Newland said. “That is always a nice thing to see, friendships develop. 

“We always try to run at our best at the end of the season, so team goals are always to perform at conference and districts and hopefully some of those other meets. If we avoid the injuries and stay consistent, good things are going to happen.” 

Claudia Nichols, who turned heads by a plethora of top finishes during her freshman campaign, mentioned she is hoping to make her encore season even better than the first.

“I am excited to get started, and working out during the summer really helped too,” Nichols explained. “And I'm really hoping to make some improvements this year to last year. (I am) definitely more mentally tough, and also I do know the courses now, so that will help out now too.”

Bigsby echoed the same sense of optimism for this season.

“I'm very confident our team will go far this year,” Bigsby said. “I want to try and make all-conference and all-district and see what goes from there.” 

While the girls will compete as a squad, the boys don't have enough runners to figure into team standings. Ayden Nichols, Carter Munch and John Fritch will run as individuals.

“Even though we're small on the boys side, it's going to be fun to be around them,” Newland said. 

Munch is a senior out for his fourth season of cross country, something in itself that leaves his coach impressed.

“That doesn't happen a lot, having a senior that's participated all four years,” Newland said. “To have him out, he's got the experience, he's got the ability, and he's looking to have a good season. We're looking to put a nice finishing touch on his senior year.” 

Fritch, a junior, “just keeps getting better and better every year,” the coach added. 

Ayden Nichols, who finished 23rd at state in 2015 before falling just short of the finals last season, is primed to again lead the pack for the boys. Newland calls Nichols the “captain of the captains” of all the teams he's coached at Hannibal.

“He is just a leader all the way,” Newland said of his standout. “He's motivated, excited. I don't think I've ever seen him have a bad day. He's kind to his teammates. He supports his teammates. He motivates his teammates, and he leads by example.”

Entering his final high school season, Nichols admits it's hard to believe his prep career is nearing its conclusion. 

“I've really come to love the program here at Hannibal High School, and I really enjoy it here, but it's my last time around and I want to go out with a bang.”

Hannibal opens the season Aug. 23 at a meet in Wright City.