When Chris McDonald was hired to take over the Basha football program in 2018, he knew it would take time to build the Bears into a championship contender.
Now in his fourth season, he has taken yet another step toward that goal. But he’s done it in a way he didn’t expect when he set out to develop the team.
“We are still very young,” McDonald said. “Are we ready to take the next step? Sure. But the question is how big of a step that is. We have to win games before we can look ahead that far. There’s been a lot of hype, of course, but we still don’t know how we stack up against the who’s who in the state.”
McDonald took over the Basha program after it won just three games the year prior. Despite participation numbers dwindling, McDonald coached the Bears to a 6-5 overall record and appearance in the 6A playoffs.
The next year, he again coached them to the playoffs despite finishing 4-6 in the regular season. In 2020, McDonald started three freshmen at the varsity level, including at quarterback and defensive back. He also had a sophomore anchoring the offensive line and two others contributing at linebacker.
Those players – quarterback Demond Williams, defensive backs Miles Lockhart and Bryson Dedmond, offensive tackle James Durand and linebackers Wyatt Milkovic and Jackson Browning – are now cornerstone pieces to the Basha team. Their youth and high level of talent also drew other players to the program, especially those who play defense.
“I truly think, right now, our defense could go up against anybody,” Lockhart said. “It’s crazy to see how far we’ve come. We’ve just built it all.”
Lockhart started all nine games for the Bears last season at defensive back, which forced him to mature quickly against varsity competition. He totaled 64 tackles, four of which for a loss, and had an interception in his first year playing at the highest level of Arizona high school football.
His accolades helped him get on the radars of colleges. He recently took a visit to UCLA when the Bruins opened the season against Hawaii. But even as he returned for his sophomore season, his spot as a starter on the Bear defense wasn’t guaranteed.
Cole Martin, one of the top defensive backs in the country for the 2023 class, transferred from Hamilton to Basha this offseason. Deshaun Buchanan, who plays both running back and defensive back, also made the move to Basha. Then came Jeremiah Vessel, a three-star defensive back from University Lab High School in Louisiana.
More depth, especially in Basha’s secondary, forced Lockhart to up his game. In the Bears’ first padded practice he was challenged by his coaches and teammates after what he admitted was a “soft” hit.
“I really have had to elevate my game every practice because everybody here can play and I know my job isn’t safe,” Lockhart said. “I have to compete every day with these guys and they’ve all helped me reaise the level of my game.”
That same hard-nosed mentality has spread throughout the rest of the team and especially the defense.
Milkovic, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound linebacker who started as a freshman at defensive tackle at Hamilton before moving to Basha, was limited to four total games in 2021. He was forced to sit half of the season because of his transfer and missed another because he was in quarantine as a close contact to someone infected with COVID-19. By the time he was finally able to take the field, he made his presence known by combining for 154 total tackles with fellow linebacker Jackson Browning.
The two return as starters this season alongside Jack Bleier, a sophomore, adding even more youth to the Basha defense.
“We can be as good as we want to be,” Milkovic said. “Honestly, I think we can be great. But it’s all about our effort, which I think we have. We just all have to do our jobs.”
Williams knew when he enrolled at Basha he would have a chance at starting from his freshman season. What he didn’t expect was how fast he would have to mature at the position. But that didn’t faze him.
He threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns in his first two games at the varsity level in 2020. In both of those losses, he showed poise in the pocket. He also quickly figured out the speed of the game. That allowed him to lead Basha on a six-game win streak to end the regular season. The Bears lost in the first round of the 6A playoffs to Sandra Day O’Connor in overtime – the same team they opened the season against this past Friday.
Now a year older, Williams has become even more comfortable playing at the highest level. It also helps having talent around him, including up front with Durand and several of the defensive starters going both ways on offense.
“We have a team with a lot of skill players and a lot of enthusiasm,” Williams said. “And having James (Durand), he kind of went back and forth on the line but this year, he really is my blind side. He’s a big bro to me. Everything he does for me I appreciate it.”
While none of the players or coaches will commit to being able to compete with the likes of Chandler or Hamilton – they all want to prove themselves in the regular season first – it’s clear they have some level of confidence. But perhaps most importantly, they have fun together.
Practice sessions are intense, but they always come together as a team and joke around. It’s moments like that that keep the mood light. It’s also a reminder that while many of them are elite football players, they’re still teenagers.
But they are teenagers eager to prove themselves at the highest level.
“The culture we are building, whether it’s on the field or in the locker room, it’s hard to be matched,” Durand said. “This is a brotherhood. We do everything together. That will help lead us to success.”