Just a few months ago, running was something Bentley freshman Tara Dooley did while playing soccer or lacrosse or basketball. Today, she is one of the top distance runners in Division II.

While growing up in Lee, Mass., she never competed in cross country or track during her high school career, but her soccer coach -- a former runner - sensed Dooley might have the talent to run in college. She had competed with her father in the Josh Billings Runaground since the age of 13, running the 10K leg of the annual triathlon in Western Massachusetts with some pretty decent success.

While Dooley was just having fun with her dad, her times turned some heads. Dooley's soccer coach contacted Bentley's then-head coach Ed Lyons, who in turn, told his successor Kevin Curtin about the potential recruit.

Dooley had never thought about running cross country in college, but Curtin saw youngster's potential and began actively recruiting her.

Curtin, who had been coaching the New Balance Boston Track Club, spoke to one of his runners who competed in the Josh Billings regularly. He asked the runner to give him some perspective on Dooley's time in the race, and the two figured out she probably would have gotten third place in the Northeast-10 Championship last year. Not too shabby for someone competing just for the fun of it.

I never knew how many miles I should be running a day, whereas team practices are more structured.
-- Bentley's Tara Dooley

Dooley visited the campus in Waltham, Mass., and met the team, but was pretty naïve about distance running.

"She came to her recruiting trip and she asked if cross country was the sport where everyone starts in a big, long line," Curtin laughed.

After helping Lee High School win a 2010 Division 3 State Championship and advance to the girls' basketball state finals last year, she seriously considered playing hoops in college. But switching sports intrigued Dooley, so she decided to give it a shot.

Getting ready to make the switch to cross country proved a bit challenging. While Dooley would have normally been training on her own in preparation for the Josh Billings race in September, she spent this summer in physical therapy, rehabilitating an injured iliotibial band in her leg. She was not cleared to run until the end of the summer, and not ready to make her season debut for Bentley until Oct. 8 at the New England Championships in Boston.

With 269 runners competing from all divisions, New England's was by far the most competitive race of the season and Dooley was more than a little anxious.

"Normally, when I competed in other sports, I would get that funny feeling and once we started the game it would go away," Dooley. "For this race it was 10 times worse because I didn't know what to expect or how to go about starting off."

Dooley looked like anything but a first-timer at the event. She finished 28th overall and first among Division II runners with a 5K time of 18:34, edging reigning Northeast-10 and NCAA Division II East Regional champion Jeptui Cherutich. This rookie runner went on to finish second at both the league and regional championships to Cherutich, earning NE-10 Rookie of the Year honors and helping Bentley qualify for nationals as a team for the first time in program history.

"I am surprised because I didn't know what kind of runner I would be especially coming off an injury," Dooley said. "I didn't think this season would be that successful for me personally. They always say, 'just race. Do what you have to do and finish, no matter what.'"

"The one thing that has impressed me about her is that she has done a nice job at measuring herself over a 5K," Curtin said. "My main concern was she would go out with the lead pack and then just crash. She didn't =- she did a phenomenal job of running a steady pace and moving up."

Dooley is certain that running daily with teammates and having some formal coaching in the sport has helped her off to a fast start.

"By myself, I was not very good with pacing and never knew how fast I was going," Dooley said. "Being with a team, they have a more general idea of pace and how fast to go on certain days and workouts. That gives me more of a guideline what I should be working towards. I never knew how many miles I should be running a day, whereas team practices are more structured."

Curtin says Dooley is eager to learn, and absorbing all of the information from teammates and coaches like a sponge.

"I knew she could help our team, but I didn't think she would be this good," Curtin said. "I did think she had the potential but I'm stunned at how quickly she has progressed."

Dooley has been the team's top finisher in all three of her races, including a time of 21:58.7 in the 6,000-meter NCAA regional race. She and her teammates will compete at the NCAA Division II championships in Spokane, Wash., on Saturday.

Curtin is looking forward to seeing what his freshman sensation can do next.

"She handles the big stage very well," Curtin said.