The Lee County Yellow Jackets are good at football this year. Really good. They’ve pretty much run roughshod over their schedule and cruised to a conference title.

But can they be great? Immortal, even? Can they be remembered as the first state champion football team from Sanford in 44 years?

On paper, they can. Football champions, they say, are built on running the ball and defense, and Lee County may just be the best in the 3-AA classification this year in both of those areas. Lee has a genuine high-Division 1 talent in running back Jahmir Smith and a stout defense that recorded eight shutouts and is allowing under four points a game.

“Will they?” is a different story. Winning a championship takes a lot of skill, a lot of talent, and a whole lot of luck. For more than four decades now, Lee County has fielded many dominant teams that have fallen short.

The quest for the 2017 3-AA State Championship begins Friday night with the Jackets hosting Ben E. Smith of Greensboro.

We spoke to a couple of experts with local ties to get their take on what it will take to finally get over the hump and win the whole thing.

“They say defense wins championships…I hope so!”

Jon Hockaday has been the Voice of the Yellow Jackets for 26 years. You can hear him live once again on WFJA 105.5 FM, which has hosted Lee County games for 56 years, Friday, beginning with his Coach’s show with Burton Cates at 6:30 p.m., followed by live pregame from the field at 7 p.m. and kickoff at 7:30 p.m.

He and co-host Keith Womack have watched every game once again this year, and they probably know the team better than anyone.

Hockaday said the Jackets are positioned better for a deep run than they have been in years’ past. For one, the team is healthy for the most part. And the defense is stacked.

“The defense has been the story this year (giving up 37 total points in 11 games) and Lee should be prepared for a good run in the playoffs,” Hockaday said. “The front six guys on defense are as good as we’ve had in a long time. Desmond Evans, Matthew Gautier, J.I. Ledbetter and Johnathan Terrell have been impressive.  I don’t know if anyone has a stat on it, but the number of tackles for a loss this season has been through the roof. Then Keaton Forbes and Jordan Terrell are the next line of defense and they have both been All-Conference good.”

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Hockaday actually graduated from Sanford Central (Lee County’s predecessor) in 1973 – the last time it won a state championship. He said he is familiar with the Paul Gay-coached teams that won back-to-back-to-back titles in 1966-68.

He said this year’s team is right up there with the greats.

“This year’s team isn’t as good offensively as some teams in the last 26 years, but defensively I haven’t seen one better. This team has been 21-1 in the last 2 regular seasons and have given up very little scoring. They say defense wins championships…I hope so!”

But waiting for the Jackets are some tough teams. Clayton and New Hanover seeded first and second in the east (Lee is third), and they will have to face other good teams in Cape Fear, Orange, Dudley and Northern Durham just to get to the title game.

But the Jackets can control their own destiny, he said, especially with that defense. “If we can score 28 points, I think we win with our defense.”

“I don’t know that there has been a better collection of talent”

James Alverson is a former Lee County quarterback who took the team all the way to the regional final in 2005. After working in radio out of college, Alverson now works for the N.C. High School Athletic Association, a position that doesn’t allow him to take sides, he said.

But, from what he has seen, he said, from an objective viewpoint, this may be the best Lee team in years.

“I don’t know that there has been a better collection of talent at Lee County on one team that what is there now,” he said. “As for what it takes to win a state championship, they have all the ingredients. They have outstanding talent at all the skill positions, which makes it very tough to game plan to stop just one or two guys. They have a tremendous coaching staff that has been there before and knows what it takes. I know Burton (Cates) and his staff won’t let the team be under-prepared. Top it off, I think they have a tremendous defense and a running game that can control the clock.”

Lee County will have to prove that their dominance on defense is not a function of scheduling. And 4-A champion Dudley moved down to 3-A this year, so facing either them or a team that beats them will be a tough hurdle.

He named Charlotte Catholic, Marvin Ridge, New Hanover and last year’s 3AA champs, Weddington, as teams to watch as well.

“I think the 3AA bracket will be the most competitive in the state this year,” Alverson said.

The Rant’s flaming hot take!

We haven’t been to a single game this year. It’d be easy for us to look at the numbers and say of course Lee County is going to win the state championship. It would also be pandering in its highest form and lack all journalistic credibility.

So, OF COURSE WE ARE GOING TO DO THAT! The Jackets are going to win the state championship! Write it down. Take a picture of it. That online thing in Sanford said Lee County would win the state championship.

Or, maybe not.

Jokes aside, after a year of murders and stupid politics and drug arrests, it’s great that Sanford has something to root for this year. A town that actually had it’s Christmas parade cut short by gunfire deserves some good news. So we’ll be pulling for them.

But it takes a lot of work, and a lot of luck to win a state championship.