How Basha football has reached the cusp of its first AIA championship

Junior quarterback, Demond Williams Jr. (front right), fakes a handoff at practice on the Basha High School practice fields on Oct. 3, 2022, in Chandler, AZ.
Junior quarterback, Demond Williams Jr. (front right), fakes a handoff at practice on the Basha High School practice fields on Oct. 3, 2022, in Chandler, AZ.

Chandler Basha has never been this close to being on top in Arizona high school football.

The team is 5-0, ranked No. 2 in both the Open and 6A by The Arizona Republic, ranked No. 29 in the nation by MaxPreps and has been dominating its in-state foes to date.

The Bears will look to send a message to No. 1 Chandler on Friday night when the they take on 4-0 and No. 3-ranked Peoria Liberty in a showdown that will have a big-game vibe with an anticipated overflow crowd and a lot of attention. The winner figures to be the strongest contender to knock off Chandler, which is ranked among the top 10 in both the USA Today and MaxPreps polls.

So how did Basha, a Chandler district school that never has reached a state final in football, get to this point?

It started with coach Chris McDonald, who came in with patience and got players to buy in and stay at Basha instead of flocking to Chandler and Hamilton. Before long, top players from other programs wanted to be part of what he's got going.

Head coach, Chris McDonald, leads football practice at Basha High School on Oct. 3, 2022, in Chandler, AZ.
Head coach, Chris McDonald, leads football practice at Basha High School on Oct. 3, 2022, in Chandler, AZ.

Just six years ago, Basha was at the bottom of the Chandler Unified School District schools in football, grinding through a 2-8 season in Rich Wellbrock's one-and-only season as the coach.

It was a second straight 2-8 season for the Bears. Players were leaving the program. Things were in disarray.

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Then came McDonald, who previously coached at Maricopa. In his first year in 2018, he led the Bears to a 6-5 record, their first winning season since 2014.

McDonald got an early taste of high school football success as an assistant under Steve Belles at Chandler Hamilton, before leading the Maricopa program from 2014-17. He has a knack for scheming offenses and a nurturing affect on players.

He has led Basha to a 15-1 record since the beginning of last season with the only loss in the stretch to Liberty in the Open Division quarterfinals last year.

McDonald is quick to share the credit for the team's success.

"I just think the consistency with the staff is one," said McDonald.. "I think that being able to keep our kids home. And creating an environment. Our staff is very player friendly. I think I'm a player's coach. Our kids I think enjoy playing for us. They know we care about them. That's the most important thing."

Senior running back, Deshaun Buchanan, practices with Basha High School's football team on the school's practice fields on Oct. 3, 2022, in Chandler, AZ.
Senior running back, Deshaun Buchanan, practices with Basha High School's football team on the school's practice fields on Oct. 3, 2022, in Chandler, AZ.

He added: "And it just kind of snowballed."

In a big way.

Basha now is on the brink of being a Top 25 high school football program in the nation. A win over Liberty might move the Bears into that distinguished group in the next national rankings.

They've gotten there with speed, size, incredible skill and depth at every position and players now getting to the Division I college level to continue their football careers.

Six players off of this year's team have committed to Division I colleges.

Most notable is senior cornerback/return specialist Cole Martin, who, along with running back Deshaun Buchanan, transferred from Hamilton in the summer before their junior season.

"It's just a brotherhood now," said Martin, who is committed to Oregon. "Last year, it was a lot of new faces, a lot of new talent. We never played with each other, other than 7 on 7.

"To be able to get out there and be able to play with these guys with the year, and now with this year and the more difficult schedule, it's hard to stop us."

McDonald knew it was time to ramp up the schedule after last year's team ran the table in the regular season for the first time in school history, only to lose to Liberty in the opening round of the Open Division playoffs.

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Basha High School football practice takes place on the school's practice fields on Oct. 3, 2022, in Chandler, AZ. Basha prepares to play Liberty High School on the upcoming Friday.
Basha High School football practice takes place on the school's practice fields on Oct. 3, 2022, in Chandler, AZ. Basha prepares to play Liberty High School on the upcoming Friday.

A tough string of opponents

Being back in the Premier Region, Basha can't help but battle the best before the playoffs start. The Bears have Hamilton, Chandler and Casteel — a combined 14-1 — in a row after this week. All of those teams appear destined for the eight-team Open playoffs, which takes the top teams  from the big-school conferences in a separate playoff bracket.

Last year, Basha didn't play Hamilton and Chandler. Its toughest opponent was Gilbert Highland, which the Bears beat 24-13. It was the closest any opponent came to Basha last year. Highland captured the 6A title.

Rallying from a 21-0 first-quarter deficit to beat Los Alamitos 33-28 in California was the confidence boost that has led to 63-0, 46-14, 55-10 and 58-0 routs over their next four games in Arizona against solid if not elite competition.

Look around the start of Basha's football practice and it is easy to see why this program has taken off. Numbers. The three spacious practice fields for freshman, sophomore and junior varsity teams are filled with bodies.

This summer, three of Mesa Eastmark's top players — defensive end/tight end Javery Mayberry, linebacker/tight end Jordan Howard and running back Javien Celaya — transferred in. They all sat out the first five games due to the Arizona Interscholastic Association's transfer rule and now are eligible to play.

But McDonald said he's not just going to throw those guys out there against Liberty. They'll have to earn playing time.

"When I took over the program, it was at 110 kids, and now we're at like 180 or 170," McDonald said. "We definitely have some kids who are being recognized (nationally). That's kind of why I asked Los Alamitos' (Calif.) coach if they would play us. They had some dudes."

Senior defensive back, Cole Martin (left), practices with the Basha High School football team at the school's practice fields on Oct. 3, 2022, in Chandler, AZ.
Senior defensive back, Cole Martin (left), practices with the Basha High School football team at the school's practice fields on Oct. 3, 2022, in Chandler, AZ.

Basha's players didn't come into the season with the 5-star national recognition as Los Alamitos quarterback Malachi Nelson and wide receiver Makai Lemon — both USC commits.

But Martin is one of the top cornerbacks in the nation. And Basha's junior class is stocked, led by quarterback Demond Williams Jr., who has started varsity since his freshman year, taking Basha to the playoffs every year with his ability to pass and run.

Junior quarterback, Demond Williams Jr. (left), practices with the Basha High School football team on the school's practice fields on Oct. 3, 2022, in Chandler, AZ.
Junior quarterback, Demond Williams Jr. (left), practices with the Basha High School football team on the school's practice fields on Oct. 3, 2022, in Chandler, AZ.

On the 2020 team, Williams' main targets included Bryson Dedmon and Miles Lockhart, who were both freshmen as well.

"I felt like we were on the up," Williams said. "We had the athletes. A couple of O-line, D-line. We just had a couple of holes we had to fill. We filled those last year. Our chemistry was still not there. I feel we're all there now."

Senior offensive lineman James Durand, a Wisconsin commit, has started all four years on the varsity, watching the program grow up under McDonald.

"It's just been a huge change in culture," Durand said. "We came out first practice of the week and ran team right off the bat. That's just how competitive we've grown over the past five years."

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To suggest human-interest story ideas and other news, reach Obert at richard.obert@arizonarepublic.com or 602-316-8827. Follow him on Twitter @azc_obert.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: How Basha became a destiny football school on the cusp of championship