Nothing Matt Roth had experienced in his football career prepared him for this.
The third-year Miami Dolphin defensive end wrapped a lifetime's worth of losing into a four months last season, as the once-proud franchise dropped its first 13 games before beating the Baltimore Ravens 22-16 in overtime on Dec. 16. After the win the Dolphins lost their last two games to finish a franchise-worst 1-15 on the year; the team was outscored 437 to 267.
"I can't remember losing more than two or three weeks in a row," said Roth of his previous football stops at Willowbrook High School and the University of Iowa. "It almost felt like we won the Super Bowl (beating the Ravens). There was a lot of relief and a lot of excitement."
"If I look back on it now, it's kind of embarrassing," Roth added. "To get that excited about one win -- it's kind of crazy. But it's not easy to get wins in the NFL and it had been a tough year."
Roth and his teammates actually came into the season feeling they had a realistic chance at a playoff run after starting 6-0 in 2006. Optimism reigned as the now-fired new head coach Cam Cameron installed an offensive system that he hoped would blend with a solid defensive core led by perennial Pro Bowlers like middle linebacker Zach Thomas and defensive end Jason Taylor.
But then the injury bug hit, with the most prominent victims being quarterback Trent Green (concussion), running back Ronnie Brown (knee) and Thomas (migraines), in addition to the trade of leading receiver Chris Chambers in October.
Roth wasn't immune to the bad karma. He suffered a Grade-2 strain of his groin as training camp was winding down and the ailment affected him throughout the season.
"The first three or four weeks (after being hurt), I could barely walk," said Roth. "I always thought hurting a groin wasn't really an injury but I wasn't near 100 percent all year. I've never had a setback like this and sitting on the sideline stinks."
Coming into the year, Roth was penciled in as the starter at left defensive end, opposite Taylor. Despite the injury, Roth still started nine games and only missed three, finishing with a career-high 44 tackles and three sacks, third on the squad.
Roth had felt he was poised to make an impact in 2007 after playing a more secondary role in his first two seasons, when he combined for 59 stops and 4.5 sacks playing as a reserve in all 32 games.
"The first year I didn't play very much but in my second year I felt I started coming into my own a little bit," said Roth. "I felt pretty good coming into this year, like I could make a name for myself. But nothing seemed to go right."
With wholesale personnel moves already reshaping the team's front office, including the hiring of Bill Parcells as head of football operations and Jeff Ireland as General Manager and the firing of previous GM Randy Mueller and Cameron, Roth knows he's not immune to the scrutiny every player on the roster is sure to be exposed to this off-season.
He arrived in south Florida as a second-round draft pick (46th overall), which puts him a notch below the hefty expectations a first-round choice faces but under more pressure than a low-round pick or free agent. He was a first-team all-Big 10 pick his last two years at Iowa and a second-team all-American as a senior in 2004, and the Dolphins must have been hoping for more production than they've seen so far.
After being drafted, Roth signed a five-year contract, which gave him a fair measure of financial and job security. But players being released with years and money left on their deals is commonplace in the NFL.
"It's inevitable in this league that you're going to have to pick up and move at some point," said Roth. "There are 32 teams and every game is an audition."
As challenging as 2007 was, Roth understands that hopefully lessons were learned. And despite what confronted the Dolphins this year, he's proud that he and his teammates stuck together.
"We did a good job of not letting it get ugly and we never played the blame game," said Roth of the locker room demeanor. "A team has a lot of different egos and we went through this as a team. And it can't get any worse."
Several local products recently wrapped up their NFL seasons, among them two-fifths of the Philadelphia Eagles' wide receiving corps. Second-year man Jason Avant (Carver) finished 2007 with the fourth-most receptions on the team, catching 23 balls for 267 yards and two touchdowns. He was a fourth-round pick of the Eagles coming out of Michigan in 2006; last season as a rookie, he had seven catches for 68 yards and a TD.
Also playing in Philadelphia is Rich South graduate Greg Lewis, who recently finished his fifth year with the club. Coming into this season, Lewis had 95 catches for 1,187 yards and three touchdowns; this season he had 13 grabs for 265 yards and three scores. Lewis originally joined the Eagles as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Illinois.
Houston Texan tight end Owen Daniels (Naperville Central) has developed into a very productive player in only his second pro season. He had a solid rookie season in 2006 (34 catches for 350 yards in 12 starts) but this season, he did way more, reeling in 63 passes for 768 yards and three scores. The 63 catches were only two off the team lead.
Daniels was a fourth-round pick in 2006 by the Texans out of Wisconsin, where he began his career as a quarterback.
On defense, Kansas City middle linebacker Napoleon Harris (Thornton) had a solid first year for a Chief team that ended the season with nine straight losses. Harris, who joined the club in the off-season as a free agent, led the team with 123 tackles and also had four passes deflected, an interception and 1.5 sacks.
Tampa Bay rookie outside linebacker Quincy Black (Kenwood) played as a reserve on defense for the Bucs. He recorded 24 tackles and forced two fumbles, while also playing special teams. He was Tampa Bay's third-round pick last April after starring at New Mexico.
Two local products are boosting the fortunes of the Central Michigan men's basketball squad this year. Junior Nate Minnoy (Hales Franciscan) is the Chippewas' second-leading scorer at 11.2 points per game, and junior Marcus Van (Curie) leads the team in rebounds despite averaging only 17.1 minutes per contest. Both are in their first year at CMU. Minnoy played last year at Schoolcraft (Mich.) Community College after a year at Purdue and Van played his first two college years at downstate Wabash Valley Community College.
Minnoy has started six of 13 games this year. His best game of late was a 19-point, eight-rebound performance off the bench in CMU's loss at Cleveland State Dec. 22.
Van pulled down a career-high 16 rebounds at Wisconsin-Milwaukee Dec. 19 and added nine more at Cleveland State three days later, which earned him a start Dec. 28 against Tiffin. In that game he responded with a season-high 16 points and six boards in a lopsided win. The 16 rebounds against Wisconsin-Milwaukee tied a Mid-American Conference season high and were the most for a CMU player since Chris Kaman had games of 20 and 21 his senior year.
Indiana State freshman forward Isiah Martin (Morgan Park) has helped the Sycamores to an 8-5 start to the season, including the school's first 3-0 Missouri Valley Conference start since 2000-01. Martin is primarily aiding his club by chipping in on the boards and on defense. He has pulled down 4.0 rebounds per game (fourth on the squad) and easily leads the team in blocks with 29. He has started four of 13 games and averages 6.1 points per game, fifth on the team.
Martin played a big role in a 62-54 win over Creighton last Wednesday, swatting away six shots. In the Sycamores' conference opener four days earlier, Martin scored 10 points, had eight rebounds and blocked four shots in a 70-56 road win over Evansville. He didn't play a major role in Saturday's 74-56 win over Northern Iowa, scoring four points and blocking two shots.
In women's basketball, North Central senior forward Barb Williams (Niles West) recently was the recipient of the CCIW Women's Basketball Player of the Week award. She has helped the Cardinals (5-6) already match their win total from a year ago (when they were 5-20); they enter conference play this week with home games against Augustana and Elmhurst.
During the week for which she was honored, Williams averaged 17.5 points, 11 rebounds, 5.5 steals and 2.5 blocks as North Central split two games with Southwestern University and Buena Vista. In the Cardinals' 64-49 win over Buena Vista Dec. 29, Williams finished one steal shy of a triple-double, with 13 points, 11 rebounds and nine steals. In a 55-54 loss to host Southwestern the night before, Williams scored 22 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks and two steals.
Through North Central's first 11 games, Williams leads the team in scoring (14.5 points per game) and rebounding (7.9 per game).
On the ice, Ohio State forward Matt McIlvane (Naperville Central) is having a solid senior season. Despite the team's struggles (7-15-2 on the year), McIlvane, one of the squad's captains, has been one of the bright spots; he's the Buckeyes' third-leading scorer heading into this week with 13 points (four goals, nine assists).
His latest score came in OSU's 4-2 home loss to Alaska Friday night, when his power play goal cut the Nanooks' lead to 2-1 in the first period. He had his third multi-point game of the year the next night, chipping in two assists as the Buckeyes earned the weekend split with a 5-2 win over Alaska.
As a freshman, McIlvane played in all 42 of OSU's games, scoring one goal and assisting on five others. The next season he had three goals and 10 assists, and as a junior he served as an alternate captain and had nine goals and 11 assists.
McIlvane played for the USHL's Chicago Steel in 2003-04, posting 46 points on 22 goals and 24 assists. He was an eighth round of the Ottawa Senators in the 2004 NHL Draft but elected to attend college instead.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun