Port Neches-Groves soccer counting on experience despite loss of dynamic scorer

Published 12:10 am Tuesday, January 4, 2022

PORT NECHES — The Port Neches-Groves soccer team returns almost every starter from last year’s team that made a playoff appearance. With that experience, the expectations for the Indians are high.

“I feel great,” senior Reyes Gonzalez said. “I am ready for the season. I can’t wait to see how this season will unfold.”

That excitement was evident at PNG’s voluntary practice this week, where the Indians had near perfect attendance in preparation for the PNG Kickoff Classic, which starts Thursday.

Coach Chad Luttrull gives instructions during a PNG soccer practice. (Chris Moore/The News)

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“I am really excited,” coach Chad Luttrull said. “The kids have been really excited. We started with 11 players back, but one got hurt for the season. We got a good mixture of leadership with the seniors. We have a good mix of juniors. We have a few sophomores and freshmen that are making a bid for a spot on varsity as well.”

Tate Sandell, who returns this year for the Indians after serving as the football team’s kicker, said the soccer team has big shoes to fill, making up for the production lost by Jason Lovejoy, who graduated in 2021.

Luttrull said no one player on PNG can replace Lovejoy, who was one of the best players to ever play high school soccer in the state. Lovejoy owns the school record for goals and assists.

“It’s one of those things,” the coach said. “Jason is irreplaceable. But, we have some seniors like Tate Sandell, Jesus Maldonado and Reyes Gonzalez. In our first two scrimmages, we have 10 goals. Tate had four of them and he only played half in one game… Those guys are saying, ‘Oh, we relied on Jason.’ Last year, we watched Jason do his thing. He scored and created so many opportunities. These guys understand they have to pick up the slack, and they have.”

Luttrull said his team could enjoy a season like Nederland had last year with a senior-heavy squad.

“They had a few really good years,” Luttrull said of the Bulldogs. “That class that graduated last year was well coached and they had three years of varsity experience. Now, my guys are getting to that point where they have three and some have four years of experience. The speed of the game is so much faster at the high school level than it is at club. They have adjusted really well.”

Junior Andres Sandoval said the abundance of returners helps with continuity.

“I have been ready for this moment,” he said. “We have a lot of chemistry. We only lost Jason, but he was a big player.”

Sandoval wants the team to allow the fewest goals in school history, although he said he could not remember what the record is.

All of the seniors said they want to win the time of possession battle each game.

The PNG Kickoff Classic starts Thursday with the first game between Vidor and Hamshire-Fannett beginning at 8:30 a.m. at the Reservation. PNG takes on Bridge City afterwards at 10:15 a.m.

Nederland and Memorial will also participate in the three-day tournament.