Lee County heads to unfamiliar football territory this season as it drops from the 4A classification to 3A and enters the Cape Fear Valley Conference. Instead of heading north toward Wake County for conference road games, the Jackets will most often head toward Fayetteville.
The Cape Fear 3A includes Fayetteville’s Douglas Byrd, Terry Sanford and Westover, Hope Mills’ Gray’s Creek, Cameron’s Union Pines and Southern Lee.
The shift is a major change for the program, which was aligned with schools such as Richmond County, Scotland County and Anson County years ago before being realigned with the Wake County schools.
The Yellow Jackets don’t have a history against many of its new conference teams, but Lee County is expected to contend for the league regular-season title this season even with just three returning starters.
Lee’s 9-4 record last year was the best of any team in the new league and the Jackets beat current conference teams Southern Lee 49-0 and Fayetteville Sanford 49-24.
Lee, came close to winning the Tri-Nine 4A crown last year, losing to eventual regular-season winner Middle Creek 21-19 and to Athens Drive 36-23.
“We had a tremendous year,” said Lee coach Burton Cates, who built a 236-82 record in 25 seasons at Eastern Randolph and led the Wildcats to the 2006 state title before coming to Lee five years ago.
Lee, which has about 1,400 students, played some schools with almost 1,000 more students last year as a 4A club.
Cates thinks the move to 3A will be a boost to the entire school and not just the athletic teams.
“I expect there will be some new excitement this year,” he said.
He said the community is fully engaged and the support has been outstanding, something he expected when he took the job. More than 800 people attended the opening midnight practice.
The enthusiasm reminds some folks of the days when Coach Paul Gay’s program was listed among the best in the state. The stadium bears his name and people still talk about former running back star Steve Jones.
“Paul is still around and he is 100 percent supportive,” Cates said. “It is really a good situation.”
The junior varsity team was second in the 4A league last year and should bolster what looks like a solid defensive unit.
The Jackets’ three returning starters – defensive end Thomas Ferguson, defensive tackle Brandon Privette and linebacker Nola Gross – form the nucleus of the defense.
“The first year here was learning how to practice and compete and the second year the ball bounced right for us a few times and we reached the third round of the playoffs,” Cates said. “The bulk of that team graduated and we were 4-6 in the third year, but we were competitive. Then last year we had nine wins. I hope the program is getting pretty solid..
“People love football here. We don’t have many starters back, but some of our kids got experience last year and a lot of them have worked hard since January. You look at us on paper and say, ‘Three starters back. They’re loaded’ but we’ve had a good work ethic and we’ve got a bunch of kids who want to be successful.”