The beginning of the men's lacrosse season still is a couple of weeks away, but already, two Anne Arundel Community College players have experienced their greatest victories.
They're still alive.
Midfielder George Ash sat on the metal bleachers along the practice field late Thursday afternoon and admired the beauty of a "sunset over America," something he and teammate Duncan Greene, an attackman,missed during their four-month stay in the Middle East during the Gulf War.
They were Marines, not lacrosse players, and the stakes there were higher than any they'll pursue this spring.
"This is the first time I've ever had fun playing the sport," said Ash, 21. "Before, there was a lot of pressure. Now, I know what pressure is. This isn't it."
A 1988 graduate of Old Mill High School, Ash entered the Marine Corp two years ago after failing grades at Anne Arundel cost him his eligibility and a possible scholarship to Division III Salisbury State University.
"I decided, 'Hey, I've got to get my life straight,' " he said. "I was a young punk when I went in, just a baby."
He grew up in a hurry. Boot camp in Parris Island, S.C., Marine Combat Training at Camp Lejeune, N.C., School of Infantry in California. And on Nov. 22, 1990, orders to go to Saudi Arabia.
"When I enlisted, my brother (Pete, 28) goes, 'Man, wouldn't that stink if you had to go to war?' And sure enough, I get my orders and there I am, offto Saudi. He felt really bad. But I'd do it again in a heartbeat."
Even though, like Greene, he feared for his life every day.
"When I was on the plane going over, a 17-hour flight, I look out and it's all sand and I said, 'I'm going to die in this?' When the first couple rounds hit, that's when I knew it was for real and I had a job todo," Ash said.
As part of a light assault infantry battalion, hisjob was to act as forward observer, "making contact with the enemy and calling in air support or just dropping back," he said.
Ash left for home April 18 and returned to Anne Arundel during the fall to get a fresh start on a degree in law enforcement. His grade-point average, once an embarrassing subject, is at 3.0. His life is in order again.
"I look at school and lacrosse a lot different. I look at everything -- life in general -- a lot different," said Ash, a lance corporal now serving in the reserves at Fort Detrick in Frederick.
"It wasn't like Vietnam or anything like that; the rounds weren't pouring on me every day. But the rounds that were, well, I know how I'm going to react. I'm not going to turn and run, I'm going to sit there and fight. Some people can't say that. People in the Marine Corps for 20 years don't know how they're going to act in combat. I know."
His actions on the lacrosse field aren't as predictable. Assistant coach Alan Pastrana said the Severn resident, though much stronger, is "a half-step" behind his earlier playing form, when he was the Pioneers' fourth-leading scorer with 13 goals and five assists. But his improvement is apparent at each practice and scrimmage leading to the March 6 season-opener at Villa Julie College.
"I came back here for fall ball and didn't know how much I lost," he said. "I had the big guns (biceps) and was looking big. Then, I started missing the goal andthe guys were like, 'Good God, give him a girls stick. Get him off the field.' But we played the Naval Academy on Oct. 24 and I had a goal and an assist and I won a couple face-offs. That's when I started coming alive, started coming back."
Pastrana said, "He's more of a take-charge guy this year. Three years ago, naturally, he was a follower. Now, he's moved forward. And he really has a lot of life in him right now."
Greene's athletic challenge is far more imposing. A two-time All-Metro attackman, he hasn't played since graduating from St. James prep school in Hagerstown in 1986.
"I enjoy it a lot more now," he said. "I'm still nervous because I haven't played in a while, but I'm a little older, plus having gone through that war, it just doesn't seem as stressful."
Greene entered the Marine Corps in December 1986 after struggling academically at St. James. He eventually was assigned to a second reconnaissance battalion, and in 1988 spent six months in the Mediterranean on training missions.
By mid-December 1990, he was in Saudi Arabia, a corporal behind enemy lines feeling somewhat lost in the desert after extensive jungle training.
"They take a four-man team and drop them in the middle of nowhere," he said, "and we patrol for miles and miles and call back information about the enemy. But you couldn't do that in Saudi because it was so flat and open, so we worked at night."
And those were the scariest times.
"When the sun would come up, we considered it a blessing," he said. "At night, our job was to make sure the Iraqis weren't comingacross the border, so we were up there all alone. I was trained wellenough that I reacted when we were fired upon, but it doesn't alleviate the fear. The fear's always there."
His home for many days wasa hole dug in the sand, just deep enough to stand in, with a tarp and layer of sand for cover.
"You don't take food, you just sit in that hole for a day or two," he said. "Three months without a shower. You'd have to go to the bathroom in paper bags, and you'd have to live with it. The Iraqis move at night, and people would walk within five feet of some teams. You could hear them at night talking."
Greene didn't completely leave his love of lacrosse back in the states. "Ialways had my stick with me during my time in the Marines. A friend of mine bought one and we'd pass a ball around," he said.
His final day in the Middle East was April 20. He was discharged from the Marines four days after returning home and enrolled at Anne Arundel during the fall. He lives in Annapolis, a short distance from the Arnold campus.
"It was a great experience and I loved every minute of it,but this day and age, I just wanted to get on with my education. That was my top priority," he said.
"The change in myself is amazing.I've gotten twice as big, and grade-wise, I got a 3.0 last semester."
And the games, while still important, no longer are viewed as life-and-death struggles.
"This is fun, this is relaxing," Ash said."That's the way it should be played."