Basha against Liberty, in an Open Division football playoff game

Liberty sophomore quarterback Navi Bruzon (7) runs the ball against Basha, in an Open Division football playoff game, Friday, November 26, 2021, at Jim Wall Stadium in Chandler, Arizona. (David Minton/Staff Photographer)

Basha’s rise to prominence in the Arizona high school football scene was no fluke. It came behind talented, yet young players who aren’t afraid of the spotlight.

It also was a result of the foundation set by head coach Chris McDonald when he was hired to rebuild the program four years ago. Basha quickly went from pretender to contender in the Chandler district and the 6A Conference, which was culminated this season with a 10-0 regular season record and No. 3 seed in the Open Division playoffs.

But the Bears ran into a battle-tested Liberty team Friday night that is on a mission to avenge last season’s Open Division semifinal loss. The Lions came one step closer to doing just that in their 38-20 win.

“They dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball,” McDonald said. “We came right out of the gate with a physical style and I think it shocked them a little. But I think as the game went on they had a couple guys take over.

“They’ve got tough hard-nosed kids. We punched them and they responded.”

Liberty took control in the second half.

Basha’s high-powered offense, led by star sophomore quarterback Demond Williams with several Division I athletes around him, was stagnant against a physical Lions front-seven.

Most of Liberty’s nine sacks came in the second half, when junior defensive tackle My’keil Gardner and junior linebacker Anthony Ruiz began to impose their will on Basha’s offensive line. Gardner finished the game with five sacks. Ruiz had three of his own. With safety Jax Stam and the rest of the Liberty’s hard-hitting secondary added to the mix, Basha was held scoreless in the second half.

It was the first time all season the Bears were shutout in a quarter, let alone two.

“I don’t think they’ve seen the defense we play,” Stam said. “I was very proud of our defense, proud of the way we flew around the ball and played very physical football. That’s kind of what the key to the game was, play four quarters of physical football.”

Basha found success in the first two quarters of play. Williams, who finished 19 of 24 for 224 yards and an interception. His lone touchdown of the night came on the ground in the form of an 11-yard run. He had 66 yards on the ground in total.

Basha’s other touchdown came on the ground as well. Star defensive back Cole Martin saw time on offense and took a jet sweep 12 yards for the first score of the game. The Bears managed to add on two field goals the rest of the way.

It’s defense, led by a star-studded lineup, found itself on the field more often than not as Liberty limited Basha’s offense. It eventually led to the Lions finding success on the ground and at times, through the air.

Sophomore quarterback Navi Bruzon sparked the Lion offense with his speed on the ground and overall play-making ability through the air. He connected with wideout Grant Brunelle — who had a touchdown on the night — on a pivotal third down at one point and found holes in Basha’s front-seven on the ground.

Bruzon scored a 1-yard touchdown that put his team out front in the third quarter. He scored another to put the game out of reach in the fourth. Bruzon finished 12 of 13 for 129 yards and a touchdown through the air. He also had 157 yards on the ground and two more scores.

Junior running back Zach Wallace also had success with 93 rushing yard and a pair of scores.

“We just started executing,” Bruzon said of Liberty’s offense in the second half. “That’s what this game came down to, really. Who executed more.”

It goes without question how experienced Liberty’s Football is in the postseason.

In 2019, the first year of the Open Division, the Lions ran the table as the No. 6 seed and won the 6A Conference title. Last year, they advanced to the Open Division semifinals and were a two-point conversion away from beating Chandler.

That loss still resonates with some of the leaders on the Liberty team. They got a shot at the five-time defending champions earlier this season. Liberty played the Wolves close but eventually lost. Now, after knocking off Basha, the Lions have yet another shot at the five-time defending champions Saturday, Dec. 5 in the Open Division semifinals.

It’s an opportunity head coach Colin Thomas said his team is looking forward to.

“We’ve got a lot of respect for Chandler,” Thomas said. “Until they’re not the state champions they’re the kings of the mountain. Whether it’s playing then next week or whenever, if we ever want to be that team we have to beat them.

“We’re excited for the opportunity to play them.”

Have an interesting story? Contact Zach Alvira at (480)898-5630 or zalvira@timespublications.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZachAlvira

 

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