The Hannibal girls cross country team returns depth and experience that bodes well in its quest for a repeat conference championship.

The Hannibal girls cross country team is one year removed from winning the North Central Missouri Conference.

All but one Lady Pirate returns to defend the title this season.

They're off to a strong start, placing second out of 10 teams Wednesday at the Fleet Feet Classic at The Battlegrounds in Wright City. 

“This was probably the best opening day meet that I've had the privilege of coaching,” Hannibal coach Charlie Newland said. “The girls ran tough, they competed. There was only 1:11 separating our first runner to our fifth runner. All the kids came through.

“This was a super way to start the season. We've got good races ahead of us, and we're eagerly awaiting to see how this season unfolds.”

Seniors Alayna Pipkin and Autumn Bigsby and junior Claudia Nichols return this fall to lead Hannibal after their top-6 individual NCMC finishes last year led to the team championship.

Nichols was the individual conference runner-up, while Pipkin took fourth and Bigsby crossed the finish line in sixth.

Nichols and Bigsby advanced to sectionals last year before falling just short of the state meet.

In the two-mile season opener Wednesday, Pipkin raced to sixth place (12:46), while Nichols took ninth (12:54) and Bigsby was 14th (13:24).

Kyleigh Gibbs, a fourth returning all-NCMC honoree, placed 16th in 13:46 to begin the new campaign.

Alexia Gonzalez was 20th in 13:57 at the opener.

“It's nice to know we have all this experience coming back,” said Newland, who enters his 16th year as coach. “Overall this might be the most talented girls team I've ever coached. We've got lots of girls back and they're rearing to go.” 

Andrew Bryant (28th, 14:34) and Ruby Roisum (40th, 15:45) rounded out the Lady Pirates' times at the first race of the new season.

John Fritch is the only returning runner for the six-member boys team.

“This is John's fourth year running cross country,” Newland said of Fritch. “That doesn't happen often, but he's really stuck it out and wants to do well. He has a chance to be a leader for the squad.”

Brice Miller, a sophomore, is out for his first high school cross country season after competing on the track this spring.

Miller was the individual champion of the boys junior varsity race Wednesday in 11:35. Freshman Jacob Chapman placed 11th in the same race with a time of 12:14, while freshman Xavier Damotte took 21st in 12:56.

“This was their first high school race in cross country, so we wanted to ease them into competition,” Newland said of his underclassmen. 

Senior Darrell Taylor and freshman Caleb Wheeler round out the Pirates' roster. Taylor, Wheeler and Fritch didn't run in the first race.

Hannibal will compete in six meets during the regular season.

Its only home race is the Frank Lemons Invitational at the American Legion Golf Course on Saturday, Oct. 6.

Many Hannibal runners built endurance for the 2018 campaign over the summer during voluntary workouts.

“We've been training all summer and I'm just excited to see what our whole team can do,” Pipkin said.

“This team is kind of like a second family,” Bigsby said.