HENDERSON — Vance County lost one of its most experienced and brightest high school basketball minds in former Vance Senior High varsity coach and Southern Vance athletic director Joe Stepusin, who passed away on Monday.
Mike Rotolo, who recently retired as the head coach of the J.F. Webb men’s basketball program, had the opportunity to work alongside Stepusin during his time at Southern Vance and credited him for always providing helpful advice while he tried to lead the team to a state championship.
“Joe was a lifelong coach here in Vance County,” Rotolo said. “He was not only a close friend, but a mentor for me. When I came to the public school system at Southern Vance High School, Joe was the athletic director there and he always had nice things to say while we were trying to build a program. Times were tough, but he was always there.”
Stepusin’s long basketball career began back in the 1950s when he joined Wake Forest University’s program, where he was able to study and learn about the proper techniques of the game from head coach Murray Greason.
During his time with Wake Forest, Stepusin was tasked with guarding some of the best players in the Atlantic Coast Conference at the time such as Lennie Rosenbluth, who was a three-time first team All-ACC player and helped lead UNC-Chapel Hill to its first NCAA Tournament championship in 1957.
After his collegiate career came to a close, Stepusin developed a passion for coaching and eventually joined Middleburg High School to lead the school’s men’s basketball team before becoming the first head coach at Vance Senior High.
Both Middleburg and Vance Senior High had many years of success under the guidance of Stepusin, who totaled 404 victories between the two schools and helped Vance Senior High obtain a state championship back in 1974, in which it finished with a perfect 26-0 record.
Former Northern Vance athletic director David Hicks built a strong relationship with Stepusin once he began coaching and advising athletes of his own.
“I often called Joe to get his input on how he did something,” Hicks said. “Most of his advice wasn’t really about setting up a game, but rather how to deal with so many different personalities. His big thing was to be true to your own self and your own philosophy, as that would help you do things the right way.”
Stepusin later served as the first athletic director of Southern Vance before retiring from the position in 1995, but Rotolo vividly remembers Stepusin maintaining his strong love for basketball, which often resulted in many conversations about different gameplans and Stepusin’s own stories from his coaching and playing days.
“Joe was old-school,” Rotolo said. “He was a coach’s coach and he always loved to talk about the game. It wasn’t always about him and what he did, but he always had great stories. Joe was a pillar of Vance County and we all aspired to be like him. He is a great man that will truly be missed.”
Hicks said that Stepusin was one of the main people responsible for building up high school athletics in Vance County during the 1960s and 1970s and believes that it is imperative for local residents to cherish and respect the history from that era with Stepusin and others now deceased.
“So many people from that generation who were so instrumental in coaching and teaching others are now gone,” Hicks said. “A lot of those people worked with Joe or coaches against him, and all of them had so many great stories to tell. I really admired all of those people and it’s sad to see that generation go away.”
Stepusin’s impact on high school men’s basketball is evident in many Henderson-based schools today like Crossroads Christian, defending NCHSAA 1A champion Henderson Collegiate and Vance County, which formed in 2018 following the consolidation of Northern and Southern Vance into one facility.
Current Vance County athletic director Joe Sharrow has been overseeing the development of all sports at the school in its brief three-year history, but he admitted that he would not be as efficient at his job without the guidance Stepusin provided during his first few years with Vance County Schools.
“I first met Joe when his granddaughter, Megan Andrews, was playing volleyball for Northern Vance,” Sharrow said. “I was still new as the AD at Southern Vance at the time and he offered me great advice and mentorship to me at that time, being that he was the first AD for Southern Vance. He was the kind of man who would give the shirt off his back to help out others, and I am a better man for having known him.”
Although Rotolo is sad about Stepusin’s death, he considers himself thankful that he got to learn from one of the best high school basketball coaches in North Carolina and knows that his legacy will continue to be witnessed around Vance County for many years to come.
“I’ll always enjoy the time that we shared and listening to the stories of how things were done before I got here,” Rotolo said. “There were so many things they were doing back then that I was able to incorporate into the way I did things. There are concepts that will always work, but Joe was a great person and that’s what made him a great teacher, coach, husband and father.”