The drills, time-worn basketball practice staples, are called suicides. The players run end to end, stopping only to touch the foul lines, midcourt and baselines. As their coach, Frank Peck, just back from a year's duty with the Army National Guard in Iraq, watched, he closed his eyes and absorbed the squeak of the sneakers.
He knew he was home.
"You know, that's his favorite sound," noted Peck's wife, Holly, as she watched from the side of the Great Mills High court with their daughters, Faith and Camdyn.
Less than two weeks ago, Peck's wardrobe consisted of sand-colored combat fatigues. Tuesday night, he was back in Southern Maryland, wearing a green Great Mills T-shirt and an ever-present coach's whistle. Peck's first head coaching job was with the 2003-04 Hornets. After a year in Iraq, he was back on the sideline.
"I had thought about this moment for so long," Peck said. "Now that you're finally home, the kids are there and you can actually see them. But there was also a little sadness, too, because you had missed a year of their lives."
Although Peck's first season at Great Mills was 2003, he had already coached and taught many of the same players at Spring Ridge Middle School in 2001. By the time he got shipped to Iraq a year ago, he had become a role model to many.
Said senior Jimmy Moore: "It's like some kids want to look up to Michael Jordan. We look up to Coach Peck as a leader. That's the kind of person we want to be like."
'Is Coach Okay?'
Peck, 37, served as a sergeant 1st class with the 116th Brigade Combat Team, providing voice and data networking for units in combat. Even though he was not on the front line, everyone knew that when Peck got the order to serve in July 2004, there was a distinct possibility he would miss more than just a basketball season.
For his players, reality hit hard: It was the first time many of them were forced to reconcile themselves with the notion that people die in wars, and someone close to them would be fighting in this one.
"That was probably the scariest thing about him leaving. He might not come back," junior Will Smith said. "After games, we'd be sitting around the locker room and someone would start to bring it up, but then they wouldn't. It would just make things worse."
They took the same tack Peck used when he got the call to serve. Even though there were five months between July and when he shipped out, he cut ties with all of his players. It tore at his heart to be away from them, and reminders only made it worse.
After he arrived in Iraq, though, Peck's players started to e-mail their coach, and he had no choice but to respond.
"I didn't want to talk about basketball," junior Cody Kohn said. "I just wanted to see how he was doing. I was curious about what it was like, what war is. I've just seen movies and heard stories. There's just no other way to describe it, but scary. People are actually trying to kill you."
Senior Matt Leddy knew he had to reach out to his coach, but what would he write?
"It's kind of hard,' Leddy said. "You don't know what to say. You don't want to bring up bad ideas.
"How do you say goodbye? Do you write 'Stay safe'? I think I just wrote, 'Talk to you soon' or 'Talk to you later.' "
But unlike picking up the phone and immediately hearing the voice of their coach, mentor and hero, the players didn't get that instant gratification from e-mail.
Sometimes, Smith said, it took five or six days to hear back. That was five or six days' thinking, "Is Coach okay?"
"We would just hope for the e-mails," Smith said. "You go on the computer and you hope, 'Man, did he e-mail us back?' "
The uncertainty and worry took its toll. On Jan. 31, the Hornets lost at Thomas Stone to fall to 6-8 (they would finish 9-14 under interim coach Derek Sabedra). After the loss, players trashed the visitors' locker room, and some stole warmups from a storage closet.
Word of the incident got back to Peck.
"That was the only time in Iraq that I cried," he said. "I took that as a reflection on me. Those are my kids."
He immediately e-mailed Thomas Stone Coach Dale Lamberth.
"I was kind of shocked when I saw who it was from, so I read it again," Lamberth said. "He apologized for his team, and after that, I was like, wow, I had a lot of respect for him. If my life was on the line every waking and sleeping moment, I don't know if I'd take the time to write that letter. "
Sabedra knew it was more than just a 17-point loss that led to the outburst. "It was clearly the frustration and the kids reacted inappropriately. I mean, when they would see on the news, 'There was a death toll of 250,' what was I supposed to tell them to make them comfortable?"
Thinking of Home
Peck initially thought he was going to return in mid-December, a month after the start of practice. He was resigned to missing two seasons on the bench. Then last spring, return dates in November started being discussed.
By the time he came home for two weeks in June, his dinner date -- military slang for the first date you can expect to eat dinner at home -- was supposed to be Nov. 15, the first day of practice.
"He was just worrying which day he was going to come back," Holly Peck said. "Was it going to be Nov. 20th, and was he going to get someone to help him for those [first five] days of practice?
"I always told him, 'If I have to pick you up at the airport and drive you to the school [for practice], I will.' "
Michele Chelednik taught with Frank Peck at Spring Ridge and is a close friend of Holly's. She was among the first to hear from Holly last month that Frank would be home in time for the start of practice. Chelednik spotted Smith and Kohn working out together at nearby Patuxent Naval Air Station, and gave them the news.
"It was in the air that he was coming back," she said, "and when I told them when he was actually going to be on American soil, well, they couldn't wait."
Peck arrived at Fort Drum in Watertown, N.Y., on Nov. 4, and his wife and children were there to meet him. Four days later, he returned home to California, Md., just in time to celebrate Faith's 11th birthday.
The next morning he was at Great Mills, poking through the storage closet. Leddy and Smith heard he was there and rushed to give him a hug.
"It's just like a relief," Leddy said. "He's back for sure."
On Monday, more than 100 kids greeted Peck in room H-39 as the coach collected physical forms and permission slips for those wanting to play basketball at Great Mills. The room was dead silent. Every student gave Peck his undivided attention as he laid out the ground rules for the program. Peck stressed discipline, teamwork, sacrifice -- traits that ruled his life the past 12 months.
"Don't blame someone else because you think you got a raw deal," he said.
"You'll tuck your shirts in. If I see your underwear, you'll be asked to leave."
His orders were succinct and unmistakable.
"He's a lot more serious and disciplined this year," Moore said. "That's good. We really need a role model and being that he went to the Army, he can show us more leadership than any other coach."
Tuesday night, the world was perfect again for Frank Peck. While his players were stretching, he walked over to the scorer's table where Faith sat, and helped her with her math homework. Holly had to chase 20-month-old Camdyn each time she came close to running onto the court.
With his whistle in his mouth, Peck stopped to look around the gymnasium, and knew he was home.
Said Kohn, "He's not only our basketball coach, he's our family."