Dick Bitzer was between pastoral positions when he took a job at Annapolis Area Christian School as a teacher. He figured it would only be a one-year gig.
"I had all intentions of getting back to being a pastor," said Bitzer, who had led Presbyterian Church of America congregations in Baltimore and Falls Church, Virginia.
Bitzer wound up staying at Annapolis Area Christian School for 27 years, finding that ministering to youngsters as a bible instructor and varsity coach was just as rewarding.
"I got involved with kids and discovered that I really enjoyed it," Bitzer said. "I fell in love with the student body at the school."
Bitzer, who retired from AACS last spring, will be honored during Thursday night's Touchdown Club of Annapolis Lacrosse Cookout and Awards ceremony. Bitzer will be presented with the Hero's Lacrosse Man of the Year award in recognition of his tremendous contribution to the sport in Anne Arundel County.
"Dick Bitzer is somebody who made a difference in the local lacrosse community. He was very well respected by everyone he encountered on the lacrosse field and that is the type of person we want to honor with this special award," said Chip Bullen, president of Hero's Lacrosse.
Annapolis Area Christian School did not offer lacrosse as a sports opportunity when Bitzer arrived in 1988. That didn't seem right to Bitzer, who had previously spent six years as head coach at Severna Park High School.
"I said to the principal 'How can you have a school in Annapolis and not play lacrosse?' So we started a program," Bitzer said.
Bitzer, who played lacrosse at Milford Mill High School and the University of Baltimore, found himself teaching basic fundamentals and explaining the rules in the early years. His first AACS team featured just four players who had ever picked up a lacrosse stick before.
Bitzer also founded the wrestling program at AACS and used that to bolster lacrosse.
"On the last day of wrestling practice, I would tell the kids that we're going to be playing lacrosse next week and I'd love to see you out there," Bitzer said.
AACS posted its first winning season in 1997 and captured the MIAA C Conference championship in 1998 and 1999. AACS moved up to the B Conference in 2000 and reached the tournament final on four occasions. The Eagles earned their lone B Conference crown in 2009.
"It was really neat building the program from the ground up," Bitzer said.
Midfielder John Rosacker was the leader of the '98 and '99 squads and was described by Bitzer as "our first high quality player." Rosacker wound up playing at Washington & Lee. Rosacker was the first of several AACS players to earn All-County from Capital Gazette Communications and play collegiately. Others included Alex Bitzer (Messiah), Ryan McCuen (Messiah), Dustin Coombe (Gettysburg) and Garth Thorpe (Bryant).
Kevin Dennsteadt was a soccer player who had never played lacrosse before arriving at AACS. He would become a Division III All-American at Messiah. J.J. Miller is the first AACS product to make a Major League Lacrosse roster.
"I think my father had a great ability to teach the game. He could take athletes and turn them into lacrosse players," Alex Bitzer said. "He was also very good at figuring out how players best fit with the team."
As one would expect of an ordained minister, Bitzer was always calm, cool and collected on the sidelines — rarely yelling at officials while only offering encouraging words to his players.
"The only time you saw my dad get upset on the field was when he thought his team or his players were being treated unfairly," Alex Bitzer said.
Former players from every era showed up when AACS held a retirement party for Bitzer last spring. Severna Park players from the 1970s also felt compelled to hold a party in their former coach's honor.
"Dick Bitzer was an incredible coach and an outstanding mentor to our young men," AACS athletic director Jim Domoracki said. "Dick truly loved his players and it showed on a daily basis. Coaching is about relationships and when your players know you truly care about them it means the world. Any kid who ever had Dick Bitzer as a coach would do anything for the man."
Bitzer, who earned a Master's of Divinity from the Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, was inducted into the AACS Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010.
"I could not tell you my won-loss record. I don't know and I don't care," Bitzer said. "It's the ongoing connection I have with these kids that means the most to me. Coaching high school kids was an awesome responsibility and I did not take it lightly."
Bitzer retired to his longtime vacation home at Smith Mountain Lake, located between Lynchburg and Roanoke in Virginia. He routinely performs wedding ceremonies and former players are often the groom.
"It was exciting to work at a small school because you really got to know the students and their families," Bitzer said. "Teaching and coaching at AACS was a great experience and I am very thankful for my time there."
Three championship teams will also be recognized during the Touchdown Club of Annapolis Lacrosse Cookout and Awards Ceremony, being held prior to the Chesapeake Bayhawks game on Thursday night. Salisbury University men's lacrosse will receive the Henry Ciccarone Memorial Award as collegiate team of the year in the state of Maryland. Head coach Jim Berkman led the Sea Gulls to the Division III national championship.
Severna Park High School was named Boys' Lacrosse Team of the Year in Anne Arundel County. Head coach Dave Earl led the Falcons to the Class 4A/3A state championship. Annapolis Area Christian School was selected as Girls' Lacrosse Team of the Year in Anne Arundel County. Head coach Lauren Burleigh led the Eagles to their second consecutive MIAA C Conference crown.
Major League Lacrosse
BLAZE @ BAYHAWKS
Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
Of note: Fan appreciation night. Visit majorleaguelacrosse.com for information.