Port Neches-Groves has only one challenge left for state championship glory

Published 12:16 am Tuesday, December 13, 2022

It has been a stout playoff run for the Port Neches-Groves Indians to say the least.

Huge playoff win after huge playoff win the last five weeks set the Indians up for the ultimate game: the Class 5A Division II State Championship Game.

The Indians (13-2), led by first-year head coach Jeff Joseph, have sat down some of the most highly-rated opponents along the way, beating ranked teams LBJ Austin , district rival Fort Bend Marshall and, last week, a huge 42-14 semifinal win against a tradition-rich Liberty Hill.

The only team that stands in the Indians way are defending Class 5A Division II state champion Dallas South Oak Cliff Bears (12-3). The two will duke it out Friday night at 7 p.m. at Arlington’s AT&T Stadium.

West Orange-Stark coaching legend Cornel Thompson, who led the Mustangs to four straight trips to the Class 4A Division II State Championship games, including back to back state titles in 2015 and 2016, and current Little Cypress-Mauriceville head coach Eric Peevey, who led the Beaumont West Brook Bruins to an appearance in the 2018 Class 6A Division I State Championship Game, both weighed in what everyone could see come Friday.

“To see what Coach Joseph has done in Indian Country in his first year has been phenomenal,” said Peevey. “To see those kids adapt to new systems offensively and defensively shows how much the kids believe in what the staff was doing from Day One. It always takes a bit to adjust with all the newness, but once they did, they have become a juggernaut.”

According to Thompson, PNG has a tremendous tradition.

“I’ve watched them a lot on TV during the playoffs, and everything they do seems to be so solid,” Thompson said. “They don’t make mistakes, and they have forced their opponents to get frustrated, especially with some of their big starts. It seems like every game they take control early. That’s the sign of a cohesive unit.”

Just like PNG has been able to do this year, the Bears stormed on the scene last year and became the “darlings” on the state platform. The Bears became the first Dallas ISD-based school to win a State Championship since 1958 behind coach Jason Todd. The Bears downed Liberty Hill 23-14 in last year’s title tilt.

“South Oak Cliff reached the pinnacle under Coach Todd last season, and he’s done such an amazing job with that program,” said Peevey. “It was a thrill to see them win it last year, becoming the first Dallas-based team to win it after such a long drought. They play really well on both sides of the ball. Their defense got better and better every game last year, and they seem to be doing the same this year. Offensively, they always have a bunch of weapons. I think if PN-G has had a similar opponent this year, it has to be Fort Bend Marshall. It’s going to be a tremendous matchup, one that could be settled in the trenches.”

Thompson feels the Indians match up well with the Bears.

“It’s going to be a huge battle up front when both teams have the ball,” said Thompson. “I’m so impressed with the Indians offensive line. They have some big old boys up there, but what makes them special is that they are athletic and come off the ball hard. Same thing with their defensive line.”

The Port Neches-Groves Indians celebrate following their semifinal win over Liberty Hill. (Mark Pachuca/Special to the Leader)

It was tough sledding in the early going for the Bears, who arguably played the toughest non-district schedule in the state.

Oak Cliff dropped its first three games against powerhouses. The Bears fell to Duncanville (15-0) 23-10, Lancaster (9-3) 21-3 and to DeSoto (13-2) 42-23.

And there’s a couple big tidbits. DeSoto will be playing for the Class 6A Division I state title Saturday and Duncanville will be involved in the game right after that – the 6A Division I state title game.

The Bears gained momentum after that, winning 12 straight. They cruised past their six district opponents, outscoring them 302-10.

“Phew, that’s a tough schedule,” said Peevey. “I saw them play Duncanville on National TV, if that tells you how good those programs are. Duncanville and DeSoto are both playing on Saturday. How many coaches can say they played a non-district schedule like that?

One thing for sure, laughed Thompson, Oak Cliff didn’t exactly play the “sisters of the poor” in non-district or the playoffs.

“Their district schedule tends to be a little weak, so Coach Todd, you can tell he likes to play ‘up’ in non-district,” he said. “We’ve been there and done that at West Orange-Stark. It only helps you in the long run.”

Oak Cliff has had their mettle tested in the postseason as they have won several nailbiters against formidable programs, just like PNG.

They nipped Mansfield Summit 12-7 in bidistrict. They held off Lucas Lovejoy 42-37 in the area round. They then came up with big plays late to subdue Midlothian Heritage 42-37 in overtime.

The Bears took care of Melissa 30-16 in their regional final and then fought off powerhouse Argyle 14-6 in the state semifinals in the fog at Crowley Stadium last week.

Coach Todd and the Bears staff have had plenty of experience in big games. Since Todd took over the program during the 2014 season, the Bears have compiled a 91-26 mark, with their worst record of 8-4 coming in the 2015 season.

Oak Cliff has at least reached the second round of the playoffs the last nine seasons.

The Bears have utilized a slew of skill players on offense, as it has been hard for opposing defenses to hone in on any specific superstar. They like to run the spread for the most part but have tended to lean on their run game to control the tempo. The Bears are averaging 352.5 yards a game, 249.1 on the ground and 103.4 in the air.

As a matter of fact, the Bears have utilized three quarterbacks this season.

Junior William Little has completed 65-of-104 passes for 798 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions as he has gotten the most reps. Senior Trey Walton has completed 44-of-85 passes for 540 yards with seven TDs and four picks, while sophomore Carter Kopecky is 32-of-53 for 501 yards with six TDs and just one pick.

The Bears spread the wealth in the backfield.

Senior Tedrick Williams has galloped for 1,056 yards and 10 TDs on 172 carries. Junior Danny Green Jr. has darted for 1,055 yards and 12 TDs on 152 totes.

The Indians can’t get too comfortable in just trying to stop that tandem, as the Bears have two speedsters that can take it the distance. Senior Izale Williams Jr. has 507 yards and five TDs on just 49 carries, while senior Jayvon Thomas has 406 yards and five TDs on only 33 carries.

Senior Corinthean Coleman leads all Bears receivers with 22 catches for 366 yards and a TD. Jamyri Cawley has 19 catches for 309 yards and four scores, while Joshua Manley has 18 catches for 281 yards and two TDs.

The Bears have made key plays on defense, especially late in games in the postseason. However, last week they may have saved their best for the semifinal. Argyle entered with a 14-0 mark, but the Bears defense held them to 188 total yards and just 87 yards on the ground.

One thing for sure, the Indians have a slew of Southeast Texas fans behind them, including the two head coaches that took the last two Golden Triangle teams to the ultimate game.

“I really like PNG’s chances, with their size and the way they don’t make mistakes,” said Thompson. “They really made a believer in me after they beat Fort Bend Marshall and got some redemption there. They need to make sure when they arrive in ‘Jerry World’ that the atmosphere doesn’t get to them. Oak Cliff already knows what that environment is like after last year. You got to block that out and concentrate on the opponents right in front of you. I really like the Indians in this one.”

Peevey echoed the same sentiments.

“When you hit that field for the first time, there is going to be jitters, but once you get that first contact, it’s all about being a football player again,” said Peevey. “AT&T is going to be insane come Friday night, and those Oak Cliff fans need to be aware about a purple invasion coming. The attendance is going to be crazy for that one. Get ready for it Arlington. The 409 is coming, and it’s called Port Neches-Groves, America. I’m just so happy that the Indians are representing us all at State. I think they have an excellent shot. Go Indians!”