A shrill, distant whistle echoes from the basement of the Arnold Village Professional Center, setting the 18 lithe bodies of the Annapolis Area Christian School wrestling team in synchronized motion.
The wrestling room is actually privately owned office space -- on loan to the Eagles -- that belongs to the parents of an AACS student who is not on the team.
Although the door to the adjacent insurance office has been left wide open, the office workers can barely hear the husky resonance of the boys in Suite L-1 counting out their opening calisthenics.
Nor can they smell the sweaty wrestlers tumbling on a worn mat, even though Coach Dick Bitzer had them going full tilt yesterday and the heaters turned on full blast. The heavy door to the wrestling room is slammed shut and is airtight, which is fortunate for the rest of the office building and especially the patrons who frequent the Domino's Pizza outlet upstairs.
"We've asked the insurance office if our (presence) bothers them and they've said no. They just sort of laugh at us when they see us coming and going," said Bitzer, 43, whose fledgling program -- in only its second season -- has gotten used to making the most of what it has. Bitzer's program is the only one AACS has ever had.
At 3-0, the Eagles have already won more matches than last year, when they went 3-6 and had to forfeit at least one weight class every outing.
"This year we've got all the weight classes covered," said Bitzer, whose squad currently competes as an independent. "We still have trouble breaking into the schedules of other teams because they're locked into their league schedules. We only get matches in early December and late in the season."
Among the toughest teams the Eagles will face this year is St. Mary's on Jan. 29. Prior to that, however, the Eagles will take on Towson Catholic (Jan. 9), South River's junior varsity (Jan. 17) and Catoctin High (Jan.
They will close with a rematch against Archbishop Spalding (Feb. 5) and St. Mary's County's St. Mary's Ryken (Feb. 12).
So far, the Eagles have beaten their opponents from Baltimore Lutheran, Archbishop Spalding and Severn by a combined 159-53. Of the 18 wrestlers on this year's team -- that's three more than Bitzer had during all of last season -- three are still undefeated in dual-meet matches.
Junior Todd Painter (125) and freshman Jarad Fowlkes (112) are unbeaten at 3-0. Senior Luke Green (140), who is recovering from a shoulder injury, won the only match he has wrestled and senior Steve Keen (152) is 1-1.
Painter, 17, was the only Eagles' wrestler who placed in the Kent County Invitational wrestling tournament last weekend and should get better as the year goes along.
He spent last year at Prince George's County's Riverdale Baptist School, which had a more established wrestling program and competed among the state's best. This year, however, he returned to AACS, which he had attended since he was 14.
"I know Riverdale was a good school, but I missed my friends in Annapolis," said Painter. "I know this program is still in its growing stages and it was a hard decision. But it was one based on friendship and God."
Bitzer is glad Painter returned and is planning to build the program around wrestlers like him.
Other than his graying hair and mustache and his slightly balding head, Bitzer is looking every bit the wrestler he once was at Baltimore's Overlea High just over 25 years ago. He is dressed for action in sweat pants, a T-shirt and wrestling shoes.
Bitzer has nearly 20 years of coaching experience, including junior varsity football and varsity lacrosse at Severna Park in the early 1970s.
He also coached lacrosse at Boston College in the late 1970s before entering three years of seminary school. Bitzer was a church pastor for nine years before coming to AACS, where he decided to put his coaching experience to work.
"The school had about 60 boys from grades nine through 12 and three sports -- basketball, football and baseball," said Bitzer. "Once the cuts were made, very few of those kids could participate in winter basketball, so I felt we needed another winter sport."
Bitzer introduced the program on an intramural basis in a classroom at the school two years ago.
"We got the kids out there, taught them some stuff and began competing with one other school. It wasn't much, but that was our beginning," said Bitzer. "Now we've got a nice room and we've got heat, which is a luxury, compared to last year."
And very humble. In fact, while the Eagles' accommodations this year are strange and anomalous, last year's practice facility -- if one would call a run-down garage a practice facility -- were downright spooky.
"It was bizarre," said Bitzer, his description bringing to mind the imagery of a Stephen King horror story. "It was cold and there were several things stored there."
"Occasionally," added Bitzer, "we'd come to practice ready to wrestle and we'd find a car parked on top of the mats."
The place was donated by the church and Bitzer was more than grateful.
Still, it was creepy, to say the least.
And the wrestlers weren't the only creatures stirring when the garage lights came on. There often were vermin and other critters of arachnoid and reptilian nature to boot.
"Once we found a snake sleeping in one of the rolled-up mats," said Keen, the Eagles' burly team captain. "And a mouse ran across my foot once."
"It was a tough place to be," Keen continued, "kind of like that first Rocky movie when he fought in that old gym."
"It was a step down, but it had personality," Green said. "You could kind of get attached to it. I'll be able to look back and say that was part of my high school experience."