Even though his team is only practicing in shells, without leg pads and not in full-contact situations, Bellevue senior Budda Baker’s intensity doesn’t waver.
A quick wiggle and he resets his feet, darting past a teammate left grasping two handfuls of air during a drill. He breaks in front of a receiver at full speed and with calculated precision during seven-on-seven, intercepting a pass and high-stepping through pursuers who look like they are running through sand. But his most impressive feat has nothing to do with uncanny shiftiness, underestimated power and solid top-end speed.
“If you’re not going to give 100 percent effort, get out of the drill,” he says to a teammate who has taken too much time lining up opposite him.
Minutes later, he has his arm around another, explaining how he beat him on the route to come up with a circus catch.
This is the growth of Budda Baker.
“He’s one of the best practice players I’ve ever seen, no question,” Bellevue head coach Butch Goncharoff said. “He has to hold other guys accountable and show them how to do it, and he’s getting better.”
For most prep football programs, losing an All-American along with a cadre of other all-state players now at Division I schools would be a blueprint for rebuilding.
At Bellevue, it is an opportunity.
The Wolverines graduated a senior class that included players now at Washington, Washington State, Montana, Idaho and San Diego and also sent All-American and state defensive player of the year Myles Jack to UCLA (along with safety Michael Carlson) after winning the fifth straight Class 3A state title for the program, a first for a Washington prep squad in any classification.
Luckily for them, Budda Baker was not among the departed.
“He’s as good as anyone I’ve had, and I’ve had some good ones,” Goncharoff said of Baker, a senior garnering interest from all corners of the Division I football landscape. “The way he plays, the way he does things, it’s amazing.”
Never was Baker at his amazing self more than in last year’s 35-3 title game thrashing of Eastside Catholic, when he scored touchdowns on a 71-yard punt return to break open the scoring, a 61-yard dash later in the game and added an interception for good measure.
This year, without Jack and a host of other respected seniors around, he has stepped forward as a vocal leader as well.
“Back then, I didn’t talk as much,” he said of his first two years. “I was a quiet guy.”
The first game of Baker’s varsity prep career was the showdown with Oaks Christian in California, a game the Wolverines counted down to the entire offseason in their weight room. Bellevue ultimately won and in the process of facing a nationally ranked team with a pair of future UCLA Bruins in Jordan Payton and Ishmael Adams, Baker said he grew.
“Right at kickoff, it hit me,” he recalled of the game’s magnitude hitting him. “I thought a little too much.”
His sophomore season was dotted with standout performances, including a two-interception game of All-American Jeff Lindquist of Mercer Island and now the University of Washington and a kickoff return score against O’Dea in the state championship.
His junior campaign sent his recruiting stock soaring and kept opposing coaches searching for answers.
He started the year with an overtime touchdown in the win over Euless-Trinity (Texas), scored a pair of defensive touchdowns in the first half against second-ranked Mount Si and added another score on offense before the break as the Wolverines steamrolled to a 49-10 win in the regular season, and anchored the back end of a defense that allowed only one touchdown to a Washington opponent all season.
“If there’s a better player in the state, I don’t know who it is,” Goncharoff said.
His task this year changes little on Friday nights, as Bellevue will look to him to provide a weapon on both sides of the ball as well as in the return game. But Saturday through Thursday, when the emotions and challenges of a season can creep into the mindset of young players, teammates know they have an experienced voice to turn to.
“Budda is a great leader on the field,” said senior Max Richmond, who along with Baker will try to defend the school’s 400 meter relay title on the track during the spring. “He is a great role model.”
Bellevue head coach Butch Goncharoff (left) and coach Pat Jones speak with the team after a practice during fall camp. JOSH SUMAN, Bellevue Reporter
(Left to right) Seniors Morgan Richey, Baker and Timmy Haehl will be counted on as leaders and to produce in 2013. JOSH SUMAN, Bellevue Reporter