Port Neches-Groves growth starts with players buying into “toughness side of things,” coach says

Published 3:57 pm Sunday, December 17, 2023

The Port Neches-Groves faithful has long waited to recapture the glory days of old when state titles could be within reach any given year.

With the program revitalized under direction of second-year head coach Jeff Joseph, it appears the purple-and-white could be entering a new golden age.

Fresh off the heels of two straight 5A-II state title game appearances and the first championship since 1975, it’s clear that PNG football is cementing its place as one of Texas’ most elite programs.

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How have they reached these heights?

In the two years since Joseph took over the program, the coaching staff overhauled the culture and identity of the team.

It begins with the little things that fans don’t see, like the hours spent grinding in the weight room.

“Something that our team really bought into is that toughness side of things,” Joseph said following the state championship victory. “The weight room has made a huge difference in who we are and what we’ve been able to do.”

The priority throughout PNG’s offseason program was to develop players’ cores and lower body strength to match up with bigger, more physical teams the team would face come playoff time. That work paid off time and again throughout the year as evidenced by the excellent play of linemen on both sides of the ball.

PNG principal Scott Ryan embraces coach Jeff Joesph. (Brian Quijada/Special to The News)

The big boys in the trenches were the cogs that made everything fall into place for Port Neches-Groves.

The offensive linemen made up arguably the most talented unit in the region, protecting the quarterback while showing their strength through dominant blocking in the run game.

On defense, stuffing the run has been the central focus. That started with the defensive line, but credit extends to every one of PNG’s defenders who can be seen flying across the field every week. Their “see ball, hit ball” mentality became PNG’s calling card as the program established a defensive identity.

Joseph said he wants to make defense cool again in Port Neches-Groves, and they’ve certainly done that.

“It starts with our defensive coordinator, coach (Matt) McDaniel, and the way they practice over there,” Joseph said. “It’s extremely fast, aggressive and physical and they practice that way all the time. It’s just having a defensive mentality of, ‘Put the ball down and let’s go.’”

The Indians amassed a 28-4 overall record over the past two seasons, but the defining moment was undoubtedly the victory over the South Oak Cliff Golden Bears in Saturday’s state title game — a matchup that was just as much of a mental battle as a physical one.

The Indians fell short to the Golden Bears in last year’s championship, a loss that left a sour taste in the mouths of PNG’s student athletes. Facing them again a year later in a state title rematch made for an intriguing storyline, but it was also a daunting task.

Despite once again entering as underdogs, PNG showed a great deal of mental fortitude and didn’t let the pressure of the moment impact them. The mental toughness instilled in the players has been a driving factor in the program’s growth over the last two years.

The coaching staff has done an impressive job of developing and maximizing the available talent. As for the players, the heart they’ve shown is to be commended. This team is highly motivated, works hard and believes they can win every game no matter who lines up across from them.

The fruits of PNG’s labor are evident. For the moment, they should soak in the feeling of having brought a state championship home for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Will they be able to go back-to-back in 2024?

Only time will tell, but the direction of the program means the Indians are be in the mix any given year — just like the glory days.

Keagan Smith is a regular sports contributor to The Port Arthur News and panews.com. He can be reached at keagansmithmedia@gmail.com.