Dena O'Brien isn't just another College of Charleston freshman running wild in her first year away from home. There is noble purpose in her crazy steps.

Maybe you have seen O'Brien during one of her frequent training runs around Charleston's Battery.

Ah, probably not. At a nationally ranked and improving pace, the 5-7 native of Pelham, Ala., is a blur.

O'Brien will compete for the Cougars tonight in the 5,000-meter run at the NCAA track and field East Regional preliminaries at Indiana University. The grand stage is a nice reward for a runner who set seven school records in her first year of college competition.

"I'm super-excited," O'Brien said. "It looks like I have a pretty good shot. If you were to ask me last year if I would be here right now I would say, 'Definitely not.' It's just a really big honor to run with athletes of this caliber. I'm excited to see what I can do."

O'Brien has the 19th-fastest time in a field of 48. The top five in each of two 24-runner heats plus the next two fastest times advance to the NCAA championships June 8-11 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Hoops translation

If progress is an indicator, O'Brien is a great darkhorse pick for Iowa. Her fastest 5,000-meter time at Pelham High School was a ho-hum 19 minutes, 18 seconds during the cross country season.

Fully involved training paid off this year with a stunning 16:21.35 run on March 25 at the Raleigh Relays.

Translated into Cougar fan talk: What we have here is a walk-on point guard turned Southern Conference freshman of the year, a final cut survivor in fall baseball tearing the cover off the ball from the leadoff spot all spring.

"I would say it's probably a lot of little things," O'Brien said. "I did a lot of workouts I didn't do in high school. I think I've been a lot more focused and just worked harder. And I can see the results."

She gives lots of credit to Pelham High School track coach Dwayne Miner, but says she preferred library visits to weight training and takes nutrition more seriously in college. O'Brien's parents recently moved from Alabama to North Augusta, a sweet spot for hill training. It all adds up to smiles for head coach Amy Seago, and more scholarship money for O'Brien.

"I always thought Dena had a little better upside in the 5K than she showed in high school because she was a 5-minute flat miler, and that's very good for a female," Seago said. "She's just such a disciplined young lady. Anything you ask of her, she will follow to a T."

This is the best essence of college athletics, much more prevalent than traditional-sport participants lauded for every accomplishment. Here, hard work and anonymity are the rule.

Which is just fine with O'Brien.

Drawing a crowd

"It's not like the basketball team where people know who they are and it's pretty easy to spot them," she said. "I always have my warmup gear or whatever on when I'm in class, and I get questions sometimes, but it's kind of nice to be able to just keep to myself. But when someone does go to our website and find out what I do, it's like, 'Hey, I didn't know you did all that.' That's kind of cool for people to find out without me really saying anything."

The Southern Conference indoor championship meet at Clemson in February was an exception. O'Brien was dazzling enough to attract a cheering section as her 5,000-meter time of 16:46.59 broke a 22-year-old conference record and beat second-place Allyson Oram of Elon by more than a minute.

"I didn't think anyone was watching because no one watches the 5,000," O'Brien said. "But when it looked like I might break the record, the announcer said something about it and everyone started cheering, and it was like nothing I'd ever been around before. I think that's why I finished so strong. It was really neat to have a crowd pushing me like that."

So it's OK to cheer if you see Dena O'Brien dashing around the Battery.

Just don't try keeping up.