PHOTO GALLERY plus keys to Port Neches-Groves High’s 2023 football championship

Published 4:37 pm Saturday, December 16, 2023

ARLINGTON — For the first time since 1975, a state football championship trophy is coming home with Port Neches-Groves High School.

The PNG Indians defeated the South Oak Cliff Golden Bears, 20-17, in a tightly contested 5A-II state title game at Arlington’s AT&T Stadium. Credit is due to the victors at every position, but one unit played an especially integral role — this win wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for superb special teams play.

“I wish we didn’t have to kick so many field goals,” PNG head coach Jeff Joseph said after the game. “The fact that we were able to go out there and snap the ball consistently with Kale Cropper, Kade Schexnaider holding, and Gio (Oceguera) being able to knock down those field goals is huge. It means everything.”

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More coverage — The Indians are state champs, top South Oak Cliff for crown

Port Neches-Groves totaled 279 yards of offense and made six trips into the red zone, yet only scored one touchdown, which didn’t come until the closing minutes of the fourth quarter. Instead, most of the scoring came soaring between the uprights thanks to Oceguera’s leg.

The kicker set a 5A state record for field goals in a title game, booting through all four attempts from 32, 21, 31 and 23 yards. Oceguera’s scoring output and poise under pressure earned him Offensive MVP honors.

The field goal unit isn’t the only group responsible for PNG’s special teams’ success.

The defining play of the game came with just under eight minutes remaining. PNG’s players lined up for a kickoff, only for Luis Blanco to attempt an onside kick. The ball traveled 12 yards before Max Scroggs, who went on to win Defensive MVP, fell on it and recovered for the Indians.

“That was a call where we thought we had something going into the game,” Joseph said. “We worked on it this week and repped it over and over. During the game, we talked about it, and we knew if we scored there, that we were going to use the onside kick.

“We called that, and our kids executed it. It was a great momentum swing for us, and I think that pushed us forward to score that touchdown there at the end of the game.”

The onside try was an especially gutsy playcall for Joseph and his team. The Indians trailed 17-12 in the fourth quarter before regaining possession. Now, that 12-yard kick will certainly go down as a defining moment in program history.

While special teams may not be as glamorous as the typical skill positions on offense, their role in PNG’s title game victory emphasizes how much players on that side of the ball can impact a game.

Aside from the kicking units, there’s plenty more praise to go around, such as the offense’s resilience on crucial fourth-down conversions.

PNG’s offense struggled to convert on third down and went just 2-10 on such attempts. However, the Indians were significantly more effective and went a perfect three-for-three on fourth-down conversions — one of which came at their own 33-yard line in the first quarter.

Sophomore quarterback Connor Bailey performed admirably and delivered several great throws to extend drives. Senior running back Isaiah Ngyuen was leaned on heavily by the offense and responded with 19 carries for 112 yards and a two-point conversion run against a very tough run defense. While he didn’t break many big ones, the Indians continued to emphasize the run game and wear their opponents down heading into the fourth quarter.

“Our coaches did an unbelievable job of preparing and knowing what to expect coming out after halftime,” Joseph said. “Not getting frustrated by the lack of big plays in the run game and sticking with it was huge.”

The discipline on display was also a key factor in PNG’s win. The Indians played a mostly clean game and gave up just four penalties for 20 yards.

Their opponent, however, conceded seven flags and 65 total yards. Two of these came at an especially poor time for the Golden Bears as pass interference and offsides calls helped to extend what would eventually become PNG’s game-winning drive.

How did PNG keep the penalties to a minimum?

It all circles back to preparation and coaching.

“Our coaches work as hard as anybody I’ve ever been around,” Joseph said. “They’re tireless in their efforts. Those guys are unbelievable, and the preparation is extremely thorough, and it showed up today.”

— Written by Keagan Smith