From beneath Collin Runge’s Bend Elks cap flows a mane that tells a story. For more than a year, Runge has been letting his hair grow, and each strand tells the tale of his journey as a baseball player. Like his jet-black locks, which hang down to his shoulders, Runge’s road has been lengthy. But his hair is his identity. It is not that he is known for his wild-yet-groomed hairstyle. Rather, it reflects him as a player.

“It fits more who I am right now in my life,” Runge says.

And right now, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Runge, who this fall will head off to the University of Portland (his third college in as many years), is exactly where he wants to be: not only in Bend playing for the team he grew up watching, but also in a state of pure baseball bliss. Fourteen months ago, Runge began growing out his hair — about the same time he started to find in the game a joy he had thought was long gone. Though that timeline, he says, is a happy (albeit eerie) coincidence.

A 2015 graduate of Redmond’s Ridgeview High, Runge began his collegiate career at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona. Primarily a second baseman for the Fighting Artichokes, he enjoyed a successful freshman season, playing in 51 of the team’s 57 games, hitting .284 and driving in 27 runs. Yet he found that his enjoyment of the game was fading.

“Going down to Arizona, I was completely by myself,” recalls Runge, a two-time Class 4A all-state player at Ridgeview who helped the Ravens reach the state semifinals in 2014. He chose Scottsdale, he says, because he thought it would be put him in the best position to be successful and perhaps open playing opportunities at the next level. “I had nobody to rely on except myself. I didn’t know anybody and (I) was 17 hours away from home. You learn a lot about yourself in that situation, and it really wasn’t the right fit for me.”

Runge says he did not agree with the philosophies of the Scottsdale coaches, who, he recounts, tried to tear down the freshman’s hitting approach to its foundation and rebuild. “They kind of wanted to reinvent everything,” Runge says. “That was the hardest thing for me.”

After one stressful year in Scottsdale, he was looking for the exit.

“There was a lot going on and a lot out of my control that was happening,” he says. “They wanted me to be somebody that I’m not. They wanted different things from me as a player, do certain things that I am capable of but it didn’t really fit into my game and my philosophy that I truly believe in. The guys down there were great, and I don’t want to bash on them at all, but it was a philosophy thing and what they were trying to teach. Overall, it wasn’t working. That’s why I ended up making the decision of coming back home.”

Runge joined the Elks last summer and began letting his hair grow long. The familiar surroundings helped him rediscover a positive approach to baseball and allowed him to once again be himself. Though the infielder batted just .222 in 32 games, Runge was close to home, and he was not going to be much farther away come fall: He headed to Salem for his sophomore season at Chemeketa Community College. Before even playing for the Storm, he was already more comfortable in his own skin as a player, and he was once again loving baseball. And it showed this past spring, as he batted .406 (best in the Northwest Athletic Conference) with 25 RBIs en route to being named the NWAC South Region most valuable player.

Sometimes, a simple change of scenery is just the trick.

“Sometimes it’s the guys you’re around or the backdrop behind the pitcher and sometimes it’s just your whole mindset,” says Elks infielder George Mendazona, a teammate of Runge’s at Ridgeview and last summer with the Elks. “Different sceneries can affect how you play. … Change of scenery is big for anyone. Sometimes that’s the thing missing from breaking out to be a .350 hitter from a .250 hitter.”

In putting together a stellar sophomore season, Runge caught the eyes of coaches at NCAA Division I Portland. In June, he committed to play for the Pilots as a rising junior.

“In baseball, everything’s so different, but as long as you’re getting to the right place at the right time … you’re going to be in good shape and have good results,” Runge says, adding that Chemeketa coaches “kind of loosened the reins on me a little bit and let me do my thing. They just kind of let me play, and when I needed to be talked to, they did. It ended up working out really well.

“When I got to Chemeketa, (enjoying baseball) kind of rebooted and I refound myself as a player. It’s something that I really enjoy going to ballparks again. It felt like more of an obligation than an opportunity … when I was at Scottsdale. Now it feels like an opportunity rather than an obligation to go to the field every day. That’s what I had in high school, and that’s what I really wanted to find again. And I was able to do that, thankfully.”

Runge is hitting .308 with the Elks this summer and was recently selected to play in next week’s WCL All-Star Game in Yakima, Washington, no doubt in part because of a rekindled appreciation for baseball after moving back to Oregon.

“I think Collin’s really loosened up,” Mendazona says. “In past years, he’s always been a really good player, but it always seemed he was a little more tense than he is this summer, for sure. … It just seems like he’s really having fun. I don’t know whether there were outside pressures that were affecting him in past years or whether it was him putting pressure on himself.

“It really shows on the field how much more loose and how much more fun he’s having. And it’s fun to be around. That stuff is contagious. I’ve been in a situation where it’s frustrating, and it’s nice to be around guys that are loose and make it easy for you to be loose, as well.”

Runge has let his game — and his lavish hairstyle — loose since returning to Oregon. So long as he maintains his own identity, Runge says, he will never lose his rediscovered love of the game.

“It’s good to know that I am back on track,” he says. “If you would have talked to me last summer, maybe, there would have been a lot of questions. That’s where coming in and finding myself as a person and then as a player after really came into play. It’s a good feeling, and it gets me excited about the future.

“It’s been a wild journey. But I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done at all.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0307, glucas@bendbulletin.com

17653076