DILLON, S.C. – Jay Lester knows what it’s like on both ends of the spectrum when it comes to playing for a state championship.
He knows what it’s like to be on the state championship team, such as in 2017 when he helped lead the Wildcats to a blowout victory as a sophomore against Chapman in the Class 3A final.
But Lester also knows what it’s like to lose in the state final, such as in his junior year when the Wildcats lost a close game to Chester in the 3A final.
Although Lester passed for 2,212 yards last season and rushed for 564 more while totaling 29 touchdowns, he reflects on last year’s loss to Chester.
“That loss taught me I need to do better,” said Lester, who threw three interceptions in that game, one of which was returned for a touchdown. “We’ve got to do better at practice, and we can’t go out there and think we’re just going to beat everybody. We’ve got to play from the first quarter until the last quarter.”
But this is a new year. And Lester’s overall performance from last year and his potential for this season makes him the Morning News Preseason Football Player of the Year.
That, however, carries little significance with Lester. He knows he has a lot of work left to be done. And he won’t let up until his team is back in the state final.
On top of that, he is determined to help the Wildcats win this one.
As the season nears, Lester knows what he must be beyond passing and rushing the football: a leader.
“When you’re a leader, you’ve got to make sure the young guys know when it’s time to step up,” Lester said. “You say, ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir” to the coaches and not talk back and make sure the younger guys do the same. We all have to do our part on the field.”
From the time Lester’s father, Johnie, introduced him to football at age 4, Jay began focusing on quarterback by age 10.
Then by the time he was 11 or 12, the praise from coaches made him realize that perhaps he could be a good quarterback at the next level.
“My coaches liked the way I could throw the ball and run when I was quarterback for the JV team in the eighth grade,” Lester said. “They’d look at me as a dual-threat quarterback, since I could pass and throw and read defenses, stuff like that."
But Lester also likes the challenge of having to bring intangibles onto the field.
“Being quarterback is like you’re captain of the team,” Lester said. “If you don’t do your part at quarterback, the team is in trouble. I want to go out there and do my part and try to make this team successful, so that’s what I like about it.”
Not surprisingly, the two quarterbacks Lester looks up to are also dual threats: Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts and the Baltimore Ravens' Lamar Jackson.
“I love their style of play and how they lead on and off the field,” Lester said.
But there’s nothing like being in the heat of the moment trying to make a play.
“It’s a challenge. I like challenges every game,” Lester said. “It makes me better.”
But those same challenges have made Lester work harder for what’s ahead this season.
“My accuracy got better, and I can read defenses better,” Lester said. “And on top of that, my speed got better. I’ve done bag drills, studied more films and I went to four college camps to get better.”
The camp Lester thinks where he thrived the most was at Virginia Tech.
“It helped me, because most of the plays they run are similar to ours,” Lester said. “I learn to recognize concepts of plays and how defenses play against that concept.” Of course, that’s all part of growing as a leader.
“When I watch film, I mainly focus on how to read the defense and get that down pat so it won’t be as hard on the coaches telling me when to throw the football or where to throw the football and what coverages the defenses run,” Lester said.
But Lester most wants to do what Coach Jackie Hayes asked of him before the season began.
“He said he expects me to be a leader and step up and do what I’ve got to do to help get us to that last game in December and win it,” he said.