Joe Cox has come a long way from the nervous kid who stepped under center to replace a legend at Charlotte Independence.

Cox set a state record with 66 touchdown passes while leading the Patriots to their fifth straight state championship and the nation’s longest winning streak. Now the senior quarterback has been named the 2004 Associated Press high school football player of the year for North Carolina.

“It’s just now starting to hit me what we were a part of,” Cox said. “We were a part of something that will probably never happen again. If it does, it will probably be a long way down the road.”

Cox earned 13 of 25 votes from a panel of statewide media members in results released Friday, making him Independence’s third winner in five seasons. Chris Leak, Cox’s predecessor and owner of virtually all the state’s passing records, was voted North Carolina’s top player in 2000 and 2002.

Ragsdale’s Toney Baker, who set the state’s career rushing record this year, finished second with five votes. Davie County’s James “Cooter” Arnold finished third with four votes after earning All-State honors at running back and defensive back.

No one in the state topped Cox when it came to combining individual and team success. The Georgia recruit completed 240 of 363 passes — a 66 percent rate — for a state-best 4,509 yards with just five interceptions.

Under Cox, Independence (15-0) extended its winning streak to 77 games by beating Hope Mills South View 41-7 in the 4-AA title game. Cox was named MVP of the final for the second straight season after throwing four TD passes.

For the season, the Patriots outscored opponents 810-121 and their smallest margin of victory was 28 points.

“There were a couple of games where once we got going, we weren’t really paying attention to what we were doing,” Cox said. “We weren’t able to comprehend the numbers we were putting up until after the game. We just tried to play as hard as we could every down.”

Cox had a difficult job replacing Leak when he started against Matthews Butler to open the 2003 season. He spent that afternoon watching the clock and battling his nerves, and his first throw was picked off.

But Cox went on to earn All-State honors by throwing for 3,983 yards and 43 scores while leading the Patriots to title No. 4.

This year, his 4,509 passing yards ranked fourth in state history — behind Leak’s totals from his sophomore, junior and senior seasons. And Cox broke Leak’s season record of 64 touchdowns with his four against South View.

Independence coach Bill Geiler said Cox could’ve started for most teams as a sophomore in 2002.

“He was the second-best quarterback in our conference behind Superman,” Geiler said, adding that Cox took a bit of time to settle into the role as Leak’s replacement. “When Joe finally realized as a junior that he didn’t have to be Chris ... that’s when he turned it around.”

Now Cox is leaving his successor the same way Leak left him — with some sizable cleats to fill.

“Honestly no one ever thought of ending the season with a disappointment,” Cox said. “We played game with no regrets and knew if we executed like we knew how, we were going to win every game.”

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