ANGOLA, Ind. -- For reasons even she can't quite put into words, Carly Searles has wanted to run a marathon ever since she was a girl. Now a two-sport star in softball and volleyball at Trine University, a Division III school a few miles south of the state line separating Indiana from Michigan, the senior went so far as to hatch a plan to run a road race in Ohio this past fall until her volleyball coach caught wind of it.
It was suggested running all those miles might be detrimental during the season.
But even if it's not long distance, even if there isn't a finish line at the end, she still looks to stretch the legs that made her a track state finalist in high school in Michigan.
"It depends on what time practice is and what my schedule is for school, but sometimes I just like to go out and run," Searles said. "I don't really track it, I just go."
It isn't all that different on the softball field, where she hits the ball and goes -- and then occasionally keeps running anyway. Except that we can track the distance she covers on the bases. In four years, in fact, she has legged out enough triples to add up to more than a mile and a half.
No one playing college softball at the moment is a close second. Even if they don't know they are chasing her.
Far from the national attention that comes with University of Oklahoma All-American Lauren Chamberlain's pursuit of the NCAA career home run record, Searles chases a record even older and does so in front of sometimes only a few dozen fans. With 48 career triples -- twice as many as other active player in any of the NCAA's three divisions -- she is just three triples shy of the all-division record established 24 years ago by South Carolina's Tricia Popowski.
Popowski set the record in 247 games. Searles has played 173.
Trine is off the beaten path in comparison with Alabama, Michigan or UCLA, but it is 31-2 and ranked No. 7 in Division III this season. It has been an NCAA tournament regular through most of Don Danklefsen's 12 seasons as coach, and a season ago it reached the Division III equivalent of the Women's College World Series for the first time. Danklefsen knows Division III talent, and he knows Searles does not fit the description.
"She's just one of those special kids that at this level you get once in a while, that kind of sink through the cracks," Danklefsen said. "If she didn't live six miles north of the Michigan border in the middle of nowhere, if she had played big-time travel ball, she would have played at one of those big schools. She would have played at Michigan or Michigan State or somewhere down south."
Softball fans whose memories go back at least a handful of years can picture a rawer version of Vicky Galindo, the Cal All-American and Olympian whose small frame and slapper's speed belied a whole lot of power. But where someone like former Olympian Caitlin Lowe could make a slapper's footwork look like dance steps, precise and elegant, Searles looks like she is running through the batter's box as the pitch approaches -- not in perfectly timed choreography, but because she can't wait any longer to attack the ball.
There is fury in the swing. There is purpose to it.
When Danklefsen told Searles four years ago that he wanted to make her a slapper and harness all that speed, she sneered that slap-hitting was too "girly" for her liking. She didn't want to poke the ball a few feet and sneak on base. He explained that what he had in mind was a power slapper. True to that philosophy, as with Galindo or current Alabama All-American Haylie McCleney, a running start doesn't preclude a big swing.
The picture he painted piqued Searles' interest. Rather than take the bat out of her hands, what he described was a means to an end. She wants to be the best, not just good. Also one of the most accomplished volleyball players in Trine history, she finished her four seasons in that sport ranked in the program's top five in just about every statistical category. Searles comes across as competitive to that point that blurs the line between strength and flaw.
"I want to say that she doesn't shut it off, but she can hide it pretty well," classmate Leah Hall said of the competitiveness on and off the field. "It doesn't get to her -- you can't tell when it gets to her. But that's usually because she does win at a lot of things."
She will always work hard, even if she may not always be a ray of sunshine doing it.
"There are days where she can be a little grumpy," Danklefsen confessed.
She can be goofy, too, but the underlying drive is that of someone who has been perpetually running a race in which the competition got a head start. And if she isn't the best player to take the field for Trine, then that distinction goes to older sister Andi Gasco, the program leader not just in home runs and RBIs as a hitter, but also wins and strikeouts as a pitcher. It is probably not a coincidence that in the second of the two seasons the sisters played together in college, Trine reached an NCAA regional final for the first time. Sibling rivalry is a familiar theme in sports, but this one seethes.
"She definitely has the younger-sibling syndrome where she wants to outdo and outperform," Danklefsen, himself the youngest in his family, said of Searles. "It was a love-hate relationship -- they always got along great until Carly's batting average got higher than Andi's, and then they would fight."
They still go their own ways. Searles texted Gasco when she broke her sister's program record for career hits, by her own admission taunting her older sibling at having done it in fewer games. She said she didn't hear back. Perhaps the battle of wills may mellow with time. Perhaps not. Searles all but snorted at the idea and suggested the sisters would eventually race wheelchairs at family reunions -- and trying desperately to win.
"My thought process was I always had to beat my sister," Searles said. "It was hard because she was always that one step higher than me when I was younger. She was a lot taller than me until I hit a growth spurt. She had everything on me: power, speed. So I was always in competition mode to drive myself to be better than my sister. ...
"I didn't want to follow in her footsteps because I've had coaches say that to me. So I came here and made my own footsteps."
Those footsteps usually reveal someone at full sprint. Searles needs six more stolen bases to enter the top 10 in Division III history, rather remarkable given that a third of her career hits went for extra bases. And just this week, pursuit of two different NCAA records nearly collided. With yet another triple in her first at-bat of a game against Alma College on Tuesday, she extended a streak of hits to 16 consecutive at-bats, one shy of matching that NCAA record (she grounded out in her next at-bat to snap the streak). For the season, she's hitting .531 and slugging .912.
Like so many of her peers, she watches when softball is on television. She watches people like Chamberlain and McCleney play in front of thousands of fans and wonders if she could hold her own at that level. Not surprisingly, she likes to think she could.
If nothing else, she said, she could run the bases.
"Obviously there is a huge, huge difference," Danklefsen said of the programs at the top of Division I. "If we played them, we would get destroyed. I know that. But Carly is one of those kids that can play on those teams."
A triple can be the purest of hits or the luckiest of mishits. It can rocket off the bat into the deepest reaches of the outfield gap. It can also carom crazily off a wall or bloop over a glove that on another day might have made a play. Half the time, Searles said, she doesn't even know a triple is going to be a triple off the bat. She just hits it and runs.
Yet however the opportunity arises, any triple stretches the game to its limits -- the runner's speed and stamina, the outfielder's arm, the coach's gumption and, yes, even the umpire's vision. In a game of short bursts, it is a sustained drama.
To make the turn at second base and pass the point of no return is to commit every bit of yourself to something.
Two steps below the spotlight of Division I and 60 feet shy of the glory of the home run, she keeps going for third.
Searles' college career will come to an end in a few weeks. She isn't sure what comes next, maybe graduate school down the road and definitely a marathon at some point.
But she'll find a way to keep taking that swing.
"I'm going to miss it," Searles said. "I'm not going to give it up. I'm going to be that one who is like 40 years old in those 18-and-under leagues playing against high school kids."
And still running.
"Still trying to leg out triples," she nodded.