High school football: Sophia returns to North Rowan

Published 12:01 am Thursday, April 20, 2023

By Mike London

SPENCER — Coach Josh Sophia spent close to four years on the east bank of the Pasquotank River, across the bridge from Elizabeth City, pouring body, mind and soul into turning around the Camden County Bruins.

Camden County was a forlorn football program when Sophia was hired in April 2019 for his first head coaching gig. The Bruins had suffered through 1-10 in 2017 and 0-11 in 2018, had lost 21 in a row, but they are more than respectable now as Sophia exits.

Sophia broke the news that he would be leaving to the Camden County players on Monday, but he leaves them far better than he found them.

Camden County made the state playoffs last fall and went 6-5 competing as a very small 2A in a split 2A/3A Conference that included eastern power schools such as (Elizabeth City) Northeastern, (Edenton) Holmes, Hertford County and James Kenan.

“I’ve learned an awful lot about coaching during my time at Camden,” Sophia said. “Learned how to coach with low numbers. Learned how to practice with low numbers and learned how to get guys in shape so we could compete with low numbers. The kids at Camden were great, the school was great, and the area is really beautiful. I’ve had a very positive experience there, but Rowan County was home for me and my family for a long time, and I’ve been given the opportunity to go back as a head coach.”

Sophia is returning to lead North Rowan, a school where he enjoyed fruitful and enjoyable football seasons as a trusted defensive assistant to Joe Nixon and later as a defensive coordinator for Ben Hampton.

North principal Mike White sounded genuinely excited when he announced on Monday that Sophia had been approved by Human Resources as North’s new head coach. Sophia is well-remembered and well-respected for his  efforts at West Rowan as well as North. He has a reputation for making young men better students and people, as well as tougher players.

Sophia is a sturdy link to the last true glory days for North football — the powerful 2013 team, head-coached by Nixon, that won its first 13 games and was ranked as the No. 1 squad in 2A. After an 11-0 regular season, the Cavaliers of 2013 demolished Surry Central and Owen in playoff games, but then the Cavaliers ran into Shelby, and the train stopped rolling.

Equally memorable for Sophia was the 2016 team head-coached by Hampton that went 11-3 and won two playoff games before losing at Reidsville.

“The  2016 team struggled at times on offense, but that team showed you can win with defense,” Sophia said. “We won with outstanding defensive linemen like Zion DeBose and Stevie Thurston. You look back on it now and those teams we had were the good ol’ days, that that was the time of our lives, Coaching very good kids and getting to coach football with some of your best friends. It just doesn’t get any better.”

Sophia’s current locale is about 300 miles from Spencer, so he’s got some serious commuting ahead of him for a while. There’s a home to get sold, among other things.

The oldest of Sophia’s three children is a daughter who is a graduating senior. She’s obviously going to finish at Camden County, so Sophia will be there through the school year.

“But I’m planning to come to North toward the end of next week to meet with the players and coaches and I’m planning on a spring football mini-camp just to get things started,” Sophia said. “With the athletes you’ve got at North, you’re always going to have a chance and there are going to be years when you’ve got the talent to make a deep playoff run. But talent can only take you so far. It all starts with the weight room, with off-season workouts.”

Sophia is a native of Leesburg, a northern Virginia town not far from Washington, D.C.

He played college football with distinction at Chowan in Murfreesboro, N.C. From 1993-96, he was a standout on the offensive line while he earned a Health and P.E. degree.

He’s a pretty basic guy. He’s a big fan of his family, sports, music and television.

He began his teaching and coaching career in Rowan County in 1998 and became an integral part of the legendary coaching staff that Scott Young was putting together at West Rowan.

While he had always been an offensive lineman, Sophia’s found his strong suits as a coach were special teams play and molding linebackers.

“I was never quick enough to play defense,” Sophia said with a laugh. “But I became that linebackers guy.”

Sophia worked in the Salisbury-Rowan school system for 20 years.

He took three years off from coaching at West when his three children were young. He returned to the coaching ranks when Nixon, who had been a West Rowan assistant, was hired as head coach at North Rowan and. Sophia joined the staff Nixon was building in Spencer in 2012.

In 2015, Nixon was named head coach at West Rowan, but Sophia stayed on at North to help orchestrate defenses for Hampton.

Hampton departed for the head job at Socastee, S.C., after the 2019 season.

Nygel Pearson, former Catawba College assistant coach, was hired to replace Hampton and led the Cavaliers through the COVID period and to three winning seasons — 5-3, 8-4 and 7-5. Pearson’s 20 coaching wins at North included four playoff victories. Pearson was named as the head coach at Spring Valley High in S.C. two months ago.

The Cavaliers’ search for a replacement led them to Sophia.

“I enjoyed the interview process,” Sophia said. “North did a great job with it, very professional.”

Sophia’s wife is a school counselor, enjoyed her time working in Rowan County and is looking forward to getting back.

Besides the graduating senior, their other two children are a freshman offensive lineman and a daughter who is in the seventh grade.

Sophia says he’s learned things from a lot of coaches along the way, from Young, Nixon and Hampton, as well as assistants, such as David Hunt and Stevie Williams, that he served alongside at West and North. And there are some experiences you can only get as a head coach. Sophia added those at Camden County.

If Sophia had to sum up his football coaching philosophy in two words it would be “defense first.”

“When your goal is to win championships, you start with defense,” Sophia said. “You can’t win championships unless you can stop people.”

Sophia prefers ball control on offense, but he understands North is usually going to have some wideouts and backs who are sprinters, so he’ll take his shots downfield.

“Just excited about getting back to North,” Sophia said. “There’s great football tradition, great history in Rowan County, and North is a big part of it.”