Hannibal junior defender Hannah Nichols has stepped up her game to contribute on both ends of the field this season.

Fewer than 24 hours before the Hannibal girls soccer team took to the pitch for its first match of the season, the squad suffered a setback.

Sophomore Peyton Utterback sustained an ankle injury expected to cause her to miss significant time this season. The midfielder was third on the team in scoring last season with 18 goals.

Already short on numbers, Lady Pirates coach Eric Hill knew he would have to take a different approach to the start of the season.

“Thin on numbers, we knew we would just have to make adjustments,” the veteran coach stated. “We have talked a lot about getting girls like Abby Baumann, Chloe Ebers and Hannah Nichols to step into the attack so we are attacking with more numbers. It makes it tougher for the opposing team to mark everything up. So far they are doing a great job of that.”

None have stepped up more than Nichols.

The junior defender entered the season having scored just one goal last year.

Nichols matched her output from a season ago with a goal in the Lady Pirates season-opening win against Kirksville.

A few nights later, the junior netted two more goals in a win over Marshall.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Nichols said of the three goals in her first two games. “We all are just stepping up into bigger roles to help the team (in the absence of Utterback).”

The junior has proven she can score in a variety of ways. Nichols has scored within the offense with a mid-range goal (21 yards), bombed one in from deep (41 yards) and also scored on a rare corner kick.

Having the most powerful leg on the team has enabled her to become a scoring threat anywhere on the field.

“She has a cannon of a foot,” Hill said. “The girls can give her a good ball and she can accurately put it on goal, or she can send one in from just about anywhere and give us a good chance to score.”

With her right leg as a weapon, Nichols is usually the player who takes free kicks.

Hill mentioned there are times when the free kick is too close for her, however.

“It’s kind of a joke, but also true, that if we have a free kick within 35 yards or closer, it’s not her range,” the coach said with a laugh. “But she does a great job of sending it in to our forwards and midfielders to get to.”

Forward Shelby Stine, who broke the single-season scoring record last season by netting 41 goals, mentioned it’s great having someone like Nichols out on the field.

“It’s just amazing the way Hannah is stepping up into our attack,” the senior said. “She has a big leg and she can get it in from wherever she wants. When she is in the back and I am up by the goal she can easily get it up to me in no time so I can get a shot off.”

Nichols mentioned playing with a scoring threat like Stine has made her and teammates have to step up their play.

“Teams are starting to put more pressure on Shelby and try to take her out of our offense,” Nichols pointed out. “So the rest of us know that we are going to have to move the ball around more to try and open up things.”

In the first two games of the year, Stine netted one goal in each game. Four different Lady Pirates scored in a 4-0 win over Kirksville, while five different players scored in a 6-0 win over Marshall.

Stine erupted for four goals in a 10-0 whitewashing of Moberly on Thursday.

Two of the Lady Pirates 10 goals came from Nichols sending the ball in tight on the goal off of corner kicks.

“I have been playing defense for 12 years so that is what I am most comfortable in doing, but scoring is a lot of fun too,” Nichols said. “But I also like to help my teammates score. Being able to come up with assists is fun too.”

If the first three games of the season are any indication of how the rest of the season will play out, Nichols and her teammates will have the opportunity for a lot of fun this year.

“We are expecting more of that from her the rest of this year,” Hill said of Nichols. “With the success she is having early on, it will only give her and the team more confidence, which is going to help drive the point of what we want to do this year.”