BUCKHANNON — In her first football game for the Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School Little Buccaneers, an eighth-grade kicker made her first extra point attempt.
Cameron Zuliani tried out and made the football team this year as a kicker, and her successful kick against South Harrison marked the first known time in Buckhannon-Upshur sports history that a female scored points in a football game. She would go on to convert nine extra points in 2017.
Cameron, who has played soccer for years, was encouraged to try out for the kicker slot by some of her future football teammates.
“We were talking about it in health class one day, because my health teacher was one of the assistant football coaches,” she said. “There were one or two players who were in my class, too. They were like, ‘You should try it,’ and some other people in my class said, ‘No, she won’t do it.’
“It just kind of happened from there.”
On a Sunday afternoon soon after that conversation, Zuliani went to B-UHS, where two middle school football players would sometimes practice.
“They had me kick for the first time and I made it with Converse on,” she said. “My shoe fell off.”
At first, Cameron wasn’t too sure what her parents, Rob and Jackie, would think about her wanting to try out for a male-dominated sport where she could possibly get hurt.
Cameron was already involved in swimming and soccer, and then there is track season in the spring.
But the Zulianis encouraged Cameron to pursue being a football kicker if that was what she wanted.
Jackie Zuliani said, “We always told her she could try whatever she wanted. She was scared to ask because she thought we would turn her down immediately, but I said, ‘Cameron, I would have loved to play football.’
“I think everyone was kind of surprised. There are girls out there that do it, but Cameron is the quiet and reserved type. When she told me, I was like, ‘Are you sure you can kick a football, because it’s harder than it looks?’
“And she said, ‘Yes, mom.’”
Jackie approached head coach Dave Chipps about Cameron getting a try-out, and Chipps told her that Cameron needed to ask herself.
She did, and one afternoon after school she showed up to try out.
“It went pretty good,” Cameron said. “They said, ‘Come back Monday and we will get you fitted.’”
Chipps said he knew Cameron was an athlete and had seen her play other sports.
“I didn’t know she had ever kicked a football,” he said. “She turned out to be quite a good little kicker.”
“We didn’t have a kicker at that time,” Chipps added. “A seventh grader came out at about the same time, but Cameron came in and stole the position. She did excellent. The boys were tickled with her.”
Chipps said his players were accepting of Cameron because they had recruited her but also because she put in the work needed to help the team.
“She earned the position,” Chipps said. “There wasn’t any giving it to her.”
Cameron’s first game was away at South Harrison Middle School.
“The other kicker that was on the team, he was put in for the first [kick], because he was experienced,” Cameron said. “Then, they sent me in. I had to kick it really high and I thought it wasn’t going in, but it went in.”
Cameron kept working, both to improve as a kicker and to better understand the game.
“I was really nervous,” she said. “When I first started I didn’t know a lot about football. I would ask, ‘What’s happening?’ and all the guys on the sideline would help me. After a couple games I started understanding what everything meant.”
Cameron thanked her teammates for their support from that initial encouragement to try out through the end of the season.
“Everybody was nice, but the first game was a little nerve-wracking,” she said. “I knew half the boys on the team, but some of the sixth graders I didn’t know. Towards the end, I knew most of them.
“I would go up to the youth football games every Sunday,” she continued. “The snapper and holder for our team were the ones that helped me, and then we would go up there during half-time and stuff and we would practice. A couple other boys would come up and we would practice kicking at the high school.
“Sometimes we would go up on a Saturday and kick at the high school — mom and dad and sometimes Carter (Cameron’s brother), would come.”
Rob Zuliani said he was impressed by the work of the Thropp brothers, Shelton and Sterlin, who were the snapper and holder on the team.
“It’s one thing to go kick when it’s not live, because you have the ball and someone is holding it for you,” he said. “At their young age in middle school, they have to snap the ball, hike the ball, the guy had to catch it, put the ball down, turn the laces the right way, and then Cameron had to kick it in a matter of seconds with the other team coming to block you. Every exchange was perfect.”
Cameron’s place on the football team continued a family tradition — Jackie had played soccer for the Bucs on an all-boys team.
“Back in the mid to late 80s, the boys weren’t as receptive as they were now,” she said. “[Cameron] didn’t have any problems whatsoever. They were very encouraging.”
Rob added, “We said we didn’t want it to be a circus act with a girl. If she can’t kick, then don’t put her on the team.”
The Zulianis did not need to worry.
“Each game she got in, she gained their confidence,” Rob said. “It was a good experience, a positive overall experience. It was neat to hear the other teams’ parents talking and saying, ‘It’s a girl.’ Now, if we can only get her to tackle, then we will be all right.”
Cameron vividly remembered her attempt at tackling in a Taylor County game.
“What happens on a kick-off is, if all the other 10 don’t get the guy down that’s going to be running the ball towards me, then it’s my job to do it,” she said. “I attempted to do it, and the guy stiff-armed me and I did a backflip.”
Jackie continued, “But she got right back up and followed the play until it was over. We were shocked. I thought she was down for the count.”
As a 36-year coach, Chipps knows the game inside and out. His son, Chris, was a long snapper.
“I’m from the old school,” he said. “Between myself and coach [Jim] Gregory, we were able to help her get her basics. But Cameron went out and sought help on her own from Jeff Martin and a couple others. She is a very coachable kid.”
Chipps said soccer players have been recruited more in the last few years to perform the kicking duties in football.
“It works out well and I have a good relationship with the soccer coaches,” he said.
Cameron was able to balance football and soccer thanks to that relationship between the coaches and due to all but one game being on different nights.
“Both practices were at the same time, so I would either go to football the first half hour or the last half hour and the rest of the time would be soccer,” she said. “There was only one time that we had games on the same night. The team we were playing for soccer we had already beat 8-0 twice, so I thought they shouldn’t have any problem without me. We went to football and we ended up winning. It was the Bridgeport game and we won 20-6 and I ended up kicking two extra points.”
Chipps has encouraged Cameron to pursue more opportunities for kicking.
“I told her she needs to go to kicking camps,” he said. “She needs to get help from true professionals. You go to the camps like the long-snapping kicking camps and you learn a lot more. It’s a dying art. Not that many kids grab a football and punt and kick like they used to.”
There’s even scholarship money for kickers at a lot of D-II and D-III schools, according to Chipps.
Martin, a 1990 graduate of B-UHS and friend of the family, worked with Cameron recently. Martin, who once kicked a record 48-yard field goal in high school, went on to play at West Virginia Wesleyan College. He now coaches high school football in Pittsburgh and works for Kohl’s Kicking Camps.
“It helped me a lot,” Cameron said. “The farthest I kicked during practice was 30 yards, and with Jeff I kicked 37 yards.”
Chipps said Cameron is already on the level of some high school kickers, but the high school game will be tougher with bigger athletes.
“She has the ability to kick the football, and that’s going to be good,” he said. “She is already kicking like a lot of high school kickers.”
As for the rest of the sport, Chipps said Cameron still has a lot to learn but is on the right track.
“We didn’t get to work with her as much on tackling and things as we would have liked,” he said. “She was a pleasure to coach and is one of the few kids willing to put the time in away from practice and games to make herself better. That’s something she needs to do to take herself to the next level.”
Cameron finished her middle school kicking career going nine-for-10 in extra points with one being blocked and is looking ahead to high school.
She has learned that a kicker on the high school team will be a senior next year, opening up an opportunity for her to kick.
Cameron added that she wants to go to some camps in the spring or summer and will be sharing her progress with Martin through videos for some extra coaching.
Although Cameron made local sports history, she doesn’t think what she did was a big deal — she did it because she enjoyed the game.
“I actually went back a couple days ago and watched videos and it was nice,” she said. “A lot of people still talk about it.”
Rob Zuliani added, “At some of the other sporting events we go to, some of the dads will come up to me and be like, ‘Our 6-year-old girl wants to kick now because they heard about Cameron kicking.’”