DILLON, S.C. – The bigger the stage, the better Jay Lester seems to play.
Or at least, that’s how Dillon coach Jackie Hayes sees it when talking about his junior quarterback.
“He’s 26-0 as a starter – that’s pretty good,” Hayes said smiling. “He said he wants to go 45-0, and it would be really nice for him to do that, but we’re taking them one game at time.”
The next game will be Friday with Wade Hampton (10-2) coming to town for a 7:30 p.m. showdown against the Wildcats (11-0) for the Class 3A lower-state championship and a spot in the big game next week.
“It’s great to be back playing for lower state,” Lester said. “We took it all the way last year and we’re trying to do it again this year.”
Lester was a sophomore last season and starting for the first time, but that didn’t stop him from helping lead the Wildcats to their fifth state crown in the last six seasons and seventh under Hayes.
He threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns in the title game against Chapman – a 55-27 victory – to cap off a stellar inaugural campaign.
“I started to feel comfortable about the middle of the season,” Lester said. “The game against Georgetown – they were up at halftime and we were just making crazy mistakes. We talked about it and I just kind of went out there and made my mind up to take over and play hard.”
Dillon rallied for a 55-27 victory that clinched the region title and gave Hayes his 300th career victory. From there, even though the competition got tougher, Lester continually improved, Hayes said. He finished the year with 2,104 passing yards and 23 touchdowns to go along with 526 rushing yards and four more scores.
“I just tried to get better on the practice field,” Lester said. “Just listening to what the coaches had to say and learning to read defenses and make good decisions.”
Decision-making and work ethic are the two things that stand out as to why Lester has thrived in his two seasons behind center, Hayes said.
“He’s got a really good work ethic in the weight room and at practices – he wants to be better,” Hayes added. “The thing about it is, he really understands football and spacing and things that a lot of players don’t. A lot of them know the plays, but they don’t understand the concepts behind them that make them work. He does.”
Hayes described Lester as a solid leader and one who leads by example. The Wildcats’ receivers were mostly freshmen a year ago and have grown alongside Lester, and a pair of new running backs as well as new offensive linemen were integrated into the system this year.
“I just try to talk to them and let them know what needs to be done before practice and after practice,” Lester said. “I talk before the game and at halftime. It’s just trying to get familiar with each other. We really started jelling these last few weeks.”
The numbers have borne that out. Lester ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns last week against May River and accounted for a pair of touchdowns the week prior against Swansea.
He is on a similar pace to what he put up in 2017 with 1,764 yards passing and 16 TDs and 454 yards rushing yards and eight scores.
One thing that has improved significantly is Lester’s accuracy. He was around 60 percent a year ago (137 of 227) put has bumped the mark to 75 this year (120 of 160).
“He’s got a really strong arm and he’s not going to put you in a lot of bad situations,” Hayes said. “On every play, he’s got multiple options, and he can run or throw. He’s a dual-threat quarterback and he is the decision maker. We’re betting on him to make the right decisions.”
So far, so good on that front.