With the completion of the Rio Olympics and synchronized swimming and diving that went with it, another form of athletic harmony continues at Bullard High School, only out of water and in pads.
Synchronized linebacking in football.
Three-decade prep coach Mike Crews, now a Knights assistant, says he has never seen a defensive tandem play in unison to the level of Cameron Lamanuzzi and Ben Baker.
Lamanuzzi says the three-year varsity players might as well be twins for all their inherent tendencies: “We think the same thing, feel the same thing and have pictures to prove it. It’s like a mental bond we’ve had since middle school (at Fresno Unified’s Tenaya).”
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Baker says they could play an entire game, exchange not one word and execute the plan in the heart of the defense at middle linebacker: “It’s a weird sense, knowing what the other person is going to do before they do it.”
And now, surely those savvy to the program at Palm and Barstow avenues must be processsing: Will Baker, Lamanuzzi and Bullard have the final word in Central Section Division I, just as Daniel Snelling, Caleb Justice and Kyle Staples did in 2009?
They represent the most successful cast of linebackers the program has known, leading the Knights to a 13-0 record and their only section title – a 42-31 win over Centennial at McLane Stadium.
“I was on the sideline and remember how crazy it was,” Lamanuzzi says. “I couldn’t wait to be one of them. I literally idolized them as a kid, and to think I’m here now as a senior.”
Snelling, Justice and Staples, too, were three-year varsity players who, as expected by many in the section – and most certainly by Knights coach Donnie Arax – went out on top.
“We put it all on the line in ’09,” says Arax, poetic by chance and true. “It was win it all or bust.”
The Bullard 17-year coach with a 120-63-1 record isn’t going that far this season: “Way too early to tell. I’ll know more when we get out of Murderers’ Row.”
That would be the most daunting nonleague schedule in the 61-year history of Bullard football, beginning with Friday’s season opener at McLane Stadium against Central, ranked No. 5 in the section by The Fresno Bee.
The No. 3 Knights then oppose No. 11 Buchanan, No. 4 Clovis, No. 13 Centennial and No. 1 Clovis West before opening the County/Metro Athletic Conference at rival and No. 7 Sanger on Oct. 7.
Baker, referring specifically to Buchanan, Clovis and Clovis West, says: “I love playing all the Clovis schools because of all the trash talk that goes outside of the programs. We hear it and that’s what we strive on.”
Adds Lamanuzzi: “We’re at, say movie theaters, and we run into Clovis High or Clovis West football players. They’re running their mouths, saying, ‘We’re going to beat you.’ We just hold it in, have fun and try not to talk back until it matters.”
Yet, truly, how will Bullard compete, succeed and establish seeding leverage against such a scheduling gamut for the postseason?
A three-position anchor of stength, Arax answers: 1, quarterback; 2, running back; and, 3, middle linebacker: “That’s where it starts for me.”
Bullard is set at quarterback with three-year starter Jack Taylor, a section standard bearer.
Running back presents a cavernous hole with the loss of one of the section’s all-time finest in Charles Williams (now at UNLV), asnd has additional program pedigree in the past 15 years with Demetrius Warren, Travon Jones, Dejonte O’Neal, Corey Jackson and Kenny Hedrington.
“We’ve been lucky,” says Arax. “We get great running backs year after year.”
It’s actually the result of a well-groomed, mash-and-gash premise that could continue with Daylan Zarate, Davion Franklin, Ontario Walls, Bradley Jorge and, maybe, the Knights’ next great mailman, sophomore Marcus Fulcher.
But at the end of the day, in the central San Joaquin Valley’s foggy late fall, if Bullard is to hang a second section plaque, it surely will be hoisted by jersey No. 2 (Lamanuzzi) and No. 44 (Baker) at middle linebacker.
No mind, in the same ilk as Snelling, Justice and Staples, they aren’t major-college talents – rather fixtures in a respected prep program chasing those in Clovis Unified.
Consider: No Knight received a Division I scholarship subsequent to the 2009 season.
“All good high school football players,” Arax says, “and that’s what was so fun about it. And this year, we are a (comparable) high school football team, a group not interested in doing the 7-on-7 summer stuff that has become so popular. This is similar to the ’09 team, just real good high school football players.”
Baker, a Cal-Hi Sports All-State Sophomore in 2014 and two-time Bee All-Star, has an established résumé. He has been among the section’s leading tacklers the past two seasons with more than 300 total.
Lamanuzzi, despite being a developing, 6-foot-1, 215-pound force at linebacker and tight end, has admittedly played with a “chip” while sensitive to bookend partner Baker’s superior recognition and having to prove himself since youth.
“Definitely. I’ve grown up pretty much my whole life always told I was not good enough, not by by my family but outside people,” Lamanuzzi says. “That’s pretty much motivated me my whole life, proving them wrong.”
Arax says: “Cameron, through hard work and growing into his body, has developed into status equal with Ben, which is great for us.”
See you in November when they play games you remember and, for Bullard, it will all begin with “The Row” as well.
Central Section Top 20 preseason football teams
(League affiliation and 2015 final record and postseason finish in parentheses)
1. Clovis West (TRAC, 6-5, D-I quarterfinals)
2. Liberty-Bakersfield (SWYL, 10-4, D-I champion)
3. Bullard (CMAC, 9-3, D-I semifinals)
4. Clovis (TRAC, 11-2, D-I runner-up)
5. Central (TRAC, 4-8, D-I quarterfinals)
6. Ridgeview (SYL, 13-1, D-II champion)
7. Sanger (CMAC, 10-2, D-II semifinals)
8. Bakersfield (SWYL, 5-6, D-I first round)
9. Edison (CMAC, 5-7, D-I quarterfinals)
10. Clovis North (TRAC, 7-5, D-I semifinals)
11. Buchanan (TRAC, 7-4, D-I quarterfinals)
12. Hanford (WYL, 14-1, section D-III champion, state D-IV AA champion)
13. Centennial (CWYL, 6-5, D-I first round)
14. Tulare Western (EYL, 9-4, D-III semifinals)
15. Memorial (CMAC, 9-4, D-III quarterfinals)
16. Sunnyside (NYL, 8-4, D-II semifinals)
17. El Diamante (WYL, 5-6, D-II quarterfinals)
18. Dinuba (CSL, 5-5, didn’t participate)
19. Clovis East (TRAC, 3-8, D-I first round)
20. Tulare (EYL, 9-2, D-II quarterfinals)