Life after state in Port Neches-Groves: The necessary struggle through the offseason that made them champions

Photo by Andy Tolbert | Edit by DCTF

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Jeff Joseph ceded the locker room floor to his father ahead of Port Neches-Groves’ third-round playoff game against Montgomery Lake Creek. Gary, the legendary Katy head coach who ditched his signature red for the PNG purple, chose to talk about butterflies.

In the ancient parable, a man finds a cocoon with a small opening and watches it shake for hours while the butterfly struggles to free itself. Then, the cocoon stills as the butterfly’s progress stops. So the man takes a scalpel, cuts the rest of the cocoon, and frees it. But the new butterfly cannot fly. Its muscles didn’t develop because it never completed the struggle from the cocoon.

Gary's message that night was that Port Neches-Groves's battle overcoming injuries made them who they were. Made them better. PN-G won the state championship in 2023 because they weathered the struggle. Starting quarterback Shea Adams suffered a Lisfranc injury in Week Three that should’ve ended his season. He removed his cast after seven weeks and competed the entire playoffs as wide receiver and wildcat quarterback on a shriveled calf, scoring the game-winning touchdown against South Oak Cliff in the championship game. Sophomore Connor Bailey took over as the starting signal caller, winning District Offensive Newcomer of the Year. 

First-Team All-District center Dillon Romero was injured in the playoffs and returned to play tight end after Mikey Wood rotated from guard to center. So many guys at H-Back went down that Layden Williams had to switch from defensive end to offense. Offensive tackle Aaron Wolford tore his PCL in the third quarter of the state semifinal and played the entire state championship game a week later.

They put their heart and soul into a 16-game season, but the players didn’t realize the magnitude of their accomplishment until the town’s championship parade. Sitting in the team room, offensive tackle Jackson Christian tries to remember how many years it’d been since the last state title before an assistant coach helps him. The football-crazy Port Neches community had gone 48 years without a championship. Members of the 1975 state championship team who’d watched their alma mater come so close all those years spoke in front of the school ahead of the title game. 

“I didn’t realize how in-depth this community was until playing for the team,” Wolford said. “I was a young kid just watching, but I didn’t really understand any of it. What it meant.”

Now comes a different battle than reaching the mountaintop - maintaining the throne. The fight against complacency rages on as PN-G’s offseason program wades into the ides of March. The weight room window displays the program’s calling card: “Champions are made when no one is watching.” It’s a constant reminder that a repeat is far from given.

“We’re not all DI athletes,” Christian said. “We have kids that are probably going to work at the plants after they’re done. So we have to be the hardest working, the toughest and the most conditioned.”

This is the edge that Joseph helped establish when he took the head job in the spring of 2022. Upon his hire, he introduced himself to the team and then didn’t speak for the rest of the week. Instead, Joseph stood off to the side and took notes about how the players worked out. When they returned from spring break that year, he implemented the program’s new offseason regimen, a hybrid of what his father conducts at Katy and what he learned coaching for a year at Southlake Carroll.  

The entire team, including the linemen, runs with the track program during the 6:45 a.m. workouts. Then, they return for the first period, combining a lifting session and agility drills. It’s a mental exercise as much as a physical one. The butterflies struggle in the cocoon in the spring before they fly in the fall. Since Joseph took over, PN-G is 28–4.

“We get to the fourth quarter, and you can tell the other team is leaning on their knees, and they’re tired,” senior offensive lineman Parker Farris said.

The offseason program is a machine; for the most part, Joseph rotates from the weight room to the football field as an attentive observer, calmly offering encouragement or critique. He displays the same even-keel demeanor PN-G fans have grown accustomed to over the past two years. 

But the fire does ignite, and it’s consistently over two things that, on the surface, have nothing to do with the workout - walking and shoes. Joseph barks whenever he catches a player walking from drill to drill, attempting to catch a momentary rest. The athletes switch from sneakers to cleats when they rotate from the weight room to the turf field. At the end of Tuesday’s session, Joseph lines his players on the goal line and informs them three pairs of sneakers were left outside unclaimed in the wake of an exhausting Monday workout. Then, he has them run to the opposite goal line and back twice, touching their chests to the ground every time the whistle blows. And it blows a lot.

Joseph hasn't allowed the state championship trophy to outweigh three pairs of unclaimed shoes. He refuses to take a scalpel and cut the butterfly from the cocoon by letting the little things go. The little things PN-G lets slip in March in front of nobody would be exposed in front of everybody on Fridays in the fall. This is the current struggle they will overcome. As the players jog back into the locker room, one stops and frantically looks around. There’s a pair of black Nikes on the ground. 

“Hey, whose are these?” He yells.

Slowly but surely, the butterflies are breaking the cocoon.

A correction was made on March 20: Port Neches-Groves has gone 28–4 over the past two seasons, not 31–1 as originally printed. DCTF regrets this error.

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