SUNY Maritime head coach Clayton Kendrick-Holmes during football practice. (Nov....

SUNY Maritime head coach Clayton Kendrick-Holmes during football practice. (Nov. 16, 2010) Credit: Christopher Pasatieri

East Islip's Andrew Cohen and his SUNY Maritime football teammates were stunned last August when coach Clayton Kendrick-Holmes announced that he would be deployed to active duty in Afghanistan after this season.

That call to duty draws ever so close as his undefeated team readies for Saturday's NCAA Division III tournament game at Alfred in western New York.

Maritime is based in the Bronx, just below the Throgs Neck Bridge, and the football team features 30 players from Long Island high schools.

Kendrick-Holmes, 40, married with two children, is a Naval Academy graduate with the rank of lieutenant commander. He is scheduled to start training for active duty next week, and if the Privateers advance, it could take an order from the Navy to permit him to stay.

"We are all heartbroken,'' Cohen said, "but we knew he was doing the right thing. We are all so proud of him.''

Kendrick-Holmes knew his news would stun the players. "I'm their coach; I'm not a naval reservist to them,'' he said. "They don't see me walking around in uniform.''

Since then, he has become a rallying figure, first with his team, then with the national media. The evening news programs have visited. So have ESPN and a wide range of publications.

"He has been put up as a poster child,'' said Johanna Kendrick-Holmes, the coach's wife, who lives on campus with her husband and two sons. "There are so many reservists who have been called up, so many who have had their dads and husbands who have to go. We are just one of the families who are privileged to serve.''

On a 10-0 team, Kendrick-Holmes is Maritime's lead story and someone who has instilled his patriotism in the players. "To come out and still coach, it's unbelievable,'' said Cohen, an offensive lineman whose twin brother, Larry, is a teammate. "He is someone to look up to. We want to send him off on a good note. One last good memory of us.''

Kendrick-Holmes - whose scheduled retirement from the Navy is only 18 months away - chose not to seek some other assignment, but no one who knows him expected him to do that anyway.

"We'd love him to stay,'' Maritime provost Joseph Hoffman of Huntington said. "But you can't be selfish with regard to this. And it was no surprise. The same commitment he shows to the team and the same he shows to his obligation in the reserves.''

Growing up in Alabama, Kendrick-Holmes initially scoffed at the idea of attending a service academy, saying, "My dad brought me a recruiting letter. I said, 'Dad, I will never go there.' He told me to keep my options open, and I did.''

Kendrick-Holmes was impressed during his visit to the Naval Academy. He played there as a linebacker and on special teams, and a few years later, he was touring the Mediterranean Sea on counterdrug operations. Later, he was in the Adriatic Sea during a blockade of the former Yugoslavia.

The phone rang in the summer. "You have been tagged for mobilization," Kendrick- Holmes said he was told. "You are heading to Afghanistan for about a year.''

Kendrick-Holmes never questioned the order. "This is probably the most challenging assignment that can come down, but there was no 'how can I get out of this?' "

The coach has rejuvenated football at Maritime, where the sport had been disbanded from 1988-2005. There was one winning season - 6-4 in 2009 - since gaining D-III affiliation in 2006. After a 1-4 record at the club level in 2005, Kendrick-Holmes was 13-23 before this year.

With their coach preparing to leave, his players say they felt a sense of urgency. "It motivated everyone,'' said running back John Gagliano (St. Anthony's), whose twin, Anthony, is a backup quarterback. "How could it not? There's been a sense of urgency every game. We had this 'can't be beat, won't be beat' every single game.''

The Long Island leaders on the team are John Gagliano, averaging 101.3 yards a game, and Jamie Spanopoulos (Carey), who leads the team in rushing with 789 yards. The Privateers also are led by linebacker Keith Barnes (Westbury), who has a team-high 107 tackles, and linebacker Pat Lasher (Seaford), who has three interceptions.

Kendrick-Holmes already has removed his belongings from the football office at Maritime. "Pictures are down, drawers are empty,'' he said. "It's ready for one of my [assistants] to move in here and do the job while I'm gone. I may be the only undefeated coach in America who has already cleaned out his office.''

There are, of course, those fears of going to war, but Kendrick-Holmes said he is prepared. "I handle whatever comes,'' he said. "I don't worry about myself. Do I know it's dangerous? Absolutely.''

His wife is preparing for the year he will be away. She tries not to let her thoughts stray to the worst of all fears for families of those in the armed forces.

"I have a lot of unshed tears,'' she said. "That feeling in the pit of your stomach that he'll be going soon. But he is a trained naval officer. His passion is coaching, but it is his turn to fulfill that part of who he is.''

Johanna Kendrick-Holmes informed her sons, Bo, 12, and Wills, 9, about their father's departure. "Bo said, 'Mom, I don't want my dad to leave and never come home,' " she said. "I said, 'God didn't give you a dad to have him not come home.' "

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