The Hannibal-LaGrange University cross country program expects to reach new heights with a blend of experience and potential.

Andy Lemons doesn’t beat around the bush when outlining his rising expectations for the Hannibal-LaGrange University cross country teams.

There was a time when the head coach struggled to recruit enough runners.

Now in his fourth year, Lemons brings back experienced competitors on his men’s and women’s squads plus a wave of incomers looking to make their mark this season, which begins at home with the Great River Open on Friday, Aug. 31. 

“We have a lot to run for,” Lemons said. “This will be the best team we’ve ever had probably on both ends. In years past we’ve had great individuals, but we’ve never been as strong overall as a team as we are now.

“Every year for our program the stakes get a little bit higher and everything gets a little bit tougher. It gets more exciting all the time.”

The Lady Trojans bring 13 runners into 2018 after earning a third-place finish last fall in the American Midwest Conference.

Junior Bailey Wagner (Willow Springs, Mo.) and sophomore Lauren Sisco (Alton, Mo.) both return as frontrunners for HLGU. They each qualified for the NAIA National Championships last season.

Shelby Kallem (Greencastle, Ind.) is projected as the No. 1 runner for the women. Kallem got off to a blistering start to her freshman season before a stress fracture derailed her rookie success. 

The sophomore is at 100 percent entering the new campaign. 

“Shelby Kallem is heads above everybody else on the girls team,” Lemons said. “That’s kind of a problem because she’s in limbo by herself. It will be a challenge to push her and get her where she needs to be. She’s running better than she ever has.”

Tessa Starbuck (Bourbon, Mo.) is the Lady Trojans’ lone senior, while Sierra St. Aubyn (Eolia, Mo.), Natalie McCaughey (Carlisle, Iowa) and Kelsey Mitchell (Waynesville, Mo.) round out the junior class. 

“The girls will have an outside shot to win the conference and I’m very confident we’ll at least place top three,” Lemons said.

Heiko Thiele will give the HLGU men a boost after bursting onto the scene with a stellar track and field season this spring. 

The Germany native is primed to be a top runner for the Trojans. 

“Heiko Thiele was second in the 10K at outdoor conference this spring and is one of the premiere distance runners in our conference,” Lemons explained. “He’s good, he’s talented and he’s tough.”

Senior Nathan Rose (Hannibal, Mo.) and juniors Sean Jones (Hannibal, Mo.), Tyler Byars (McLeansboro, Ill.) and David Ballew (Kansas City, Mo.) return with experience on the men’s side.

Devin Neff (Center, Mo.), a former all-stater at Mark Twain, headlines a five-member freshman class.

“Devin has been very good so far, which is not really a surprise,” Lemons said. “He’s a nice freshman who will come in and help us.” 

The head coach mentioned he hopes his runners build toward competing at their best by their postseason meets. 

“It’s mid-August, and we’ve got to be ready to roll in November,” Lemons said. “We have plenty of time to get things going. Right now, we’re not where we need to be, but no program is. We’ll be where we need to be in two months.” 

Carissa Eichmeyer, who has served as Lemons’ assistant coach the past three seasons, announced this week she accepted a job to take over the cross country program at Thiel College in Pennsylvania.

Eichmeyer’s departure is bittersweet for the program she leaves behind. 

“Carissa helped build this program up and make it more successful,” Lemons said. “We’ve had lots of consistency that’s been real nice. She will be missed. I’m saddened but excited for her.”