Maggie Lambert was an All-Region VI runner as a freshman. She is back to lead the 2017 Blue Dragon Women's Cross Country Team. (Andrew Carpenter/Blue Dragon Sports Information).
Maggie Lambert was an All-Region VI runner as a freshman. She is back to lead the 2017 Blue Dragon Women's Cross Country Team. (Andrew Carpenter/Blue Dragon Sports Information).

HutchCC Sports Information

By simple numbers, the 2017 Hutchinson Community College cross country team is the biggest in several years.

But what Blue Dragon head coach Justin Riggs likes is the quality of runners within those numbers.

"This is the biggest team I've had since I've been here," said Riggs, who ran for the Blue Dragons, spent three years as an assistant and is now in his third season as the head coach. "There is a lot of talent in there. That has us excited."

The one downside is that Riggs doesn't bring a lot of experience back – only two women's runners and one men's runner. The upside is that his top freshman runners of 2016 are in that returning group.

The Blue Dragons women's team returns sophomore Maggie Lambert and Vianny Sierra. The only Hutchinson men's runner to return is Jeremy Stiebens.

The Blue Dragons open the 2017 season at home on Friday night with the second annual Terry Masterson Twilight Classic at Fun Valley. The first time the men will run an 8K race and the women a 5K race will be in two weeks when Hutchinson travels to Joplin, Missouri, for the Missouri Southern Invitational.

"We are taking them in steps," Riggs said. "With all the freshmen we have, we will build to that 8K mark for the guys. We ran a 3K time trial a couple of weeks ago. The Masterson will be about 4K and then we go up to 8K in a couple of weeks. The men add 3,000 meters from high school and that's a big jump."

Lambert had an exceptional freshman season, not only with the cross country team, but on the track as well and in the classroom as well.

With the cross country team, Lambert was an All-Region VI runner who finished 56th overall at the NJCAA Championships. Her national time of 19:43.35 was the seventh fastest national time by a Blue Dragon women's runner in team history. Her season's best time of 19:18.1 was the fifth-fast time ever by a Blue Dragon.

"We expect big things from Maggie this year," Riggs said. "We've pushed Maggie into that leadership role and she naturally assumes that role. She leads the guys and girls through all the stretches and all the workout we do."

Lambert and freshman Eileen Gomez have established themselves as the early frontrunners for the Hutch women's team.

"Behind them, we have six to seven runners who will likely be changing places in every race we run. WE have a lot of depth on the women's side that we haven't had in several years."

Sierra finished 274th at nationals last year.

Stiebens, a sophomore from Hutchinson Central Christian High School, came on strong during his freshman season. He led the Blue Dragons at the Region VI championships with a 37th-place finish and was the second Hutchinson runner to finish at the NJCAA Championships to finish 148th.

"Jeremy dealt with a pretty tough injury in the track season, so he is still coming back from that," Riggs said. "As the year goes on, he will make more and more of a contribution."

The remaining runners are freshmen. Still, Riggs likes what he sees. Jared Stark, Grant Clothier and Connor Kaufman have consistently been the top three runners in preseason workouts.

"Those three guys have set the tone for the men's team with the potential we can see," Riggs said. "Those three guys have established themselves as the three front-runners so far."

Going forward, Riggs hopes to close the gap between those three runners and the rest of the team.

"With the guys, we have talent levels that are very similar," Riggs said. "I expect to see different a pretty steady mix-up in the order. It won't be the same order each race."