2006 Breakout Players
Romo joined the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Illinois in 2003. He didn't take a snap before this season, but he outplayed Drew Bledsoe in the preseason and eventually took over as the starter in Week 8. The athletic Romo went 6-2 in his first eight starts for the Cowboys.
The 6-foot-5 right-hander won Rookie of the Year honors in the American League as one of the mainstays of the Detroit rotation that propelled the Tigers into their first World Series since 1984. Verlander was 17-9 with a 3.63 ERA.
The 115-pounder, brimming with charisma, pierced the public consciousness by winning all three of his fights (beating Masibulele Makepula, Rosendo Alvarez and Adonis Rivas), running his win streak to 25 bouts, and landing the coveted HBO deal.
Arenas has gone from just another high-scoring point guard to something else entirely over the last year. Averaging nearly 30 points per game (including a 60-point outburst against the Lakers on Dec. 17), he's candidly letting outsiders observe his quirky off-court persona that ranks among the most intriguing in pro sports.
The rookie netminder posted modest numbers (14-8, 3.68 GAA) in 28 regular-season games before being called upon to replace ailing starter Martin Gerber early in the 2006 playoffs. Ward sparkled, with 15 wins (two shutouts) and a 2.14 GAA, capturing the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP) as the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup. This season, he is ranked among the NHL's top 10 goalies in victories.
Any Heisman Trophy hopes he had seemed to be dashed by the toe injury he suffered in a fight outside a Little Rock night club on July 29. McFadden bounced back, though, running (1,558 yards) and throwing (three TDs) his way to New York as the only sophomore Heisman finalist.
The charismatic American spent the second half of 2006 as the best male tennis player not named Roger Federer. He finished the season ranked No. 4 in the world.
The 29-year-old Australian doubled his money total from his previous career-high ($1.931 million) and also won his first major: the U.S. Open.
The 26-year-old Virginian finished third in NASCAR's point standings, the highest finish by a rookie since James Hylton in 1966. He also was the first rookie to make the Chase for the Championship since the system was developed in 2004. Along the way, he accumulated a pair of wins at Pocono and 20 Top 10 finishes, developing a consistency most veterans struggle to achieve at any year during their Nextel Cup career.
The Chargers were widely criticized for letting veteran quarterback Drew Brees go and relying on an untested second-year pro. All Rivers did in his first 14 games of the season was complete over 62 percent of his passes, throw 18 touchdowns and just eight interceptions, and lead the top scoring offense in the NFL.
He barreled onto the scene as National League Rookie of the Year in 2005, then mocked talk of a possible sophomore slump by winning the All-Star Home Run Derby and finishing the regular season with 58 HRs and 149 RBIs, both the best marks in baseball.
Before his season was cut short by injury, Yao was enjoying a breakout year with the Rockets in 2005-06, averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds per game. He's improved even more this season, carrying Houston back into the playoff race and solidifying his standing as the NBA's premier center. Some have him pegged as the early favorite for the 2006-07 MVP.
A fifth-round pick in 1999, Miller made only 18 appearances prior to last season when he steadily stole the starting job from Martin Biron. Finishing with 30-14-5, 2.60 GAA marks, Miller's time was the playoffs: 11-7, 2.58 as injury-ravaged Buffalo extended eventual-Cup champion Carolina to 7 games in the Eastern Conference Finals. This season, he got out of the gate with a solid 17-5-2, 2.71 mark for the formidable, free-wheeling Sabres.
Teammate Brian Leonard received the preseason Heisman hype with a Times Square video advertisement, but Rice proved to be Rutgers' best option (1,624 yards; 19 TDs) during the Scarlet Knights' second 10-win year in the school's history.
It's a rare athlete who breaks out at age 27, but Mauresmo -- a top-five player for most of the decade -- finally overcame her mental demons and won her first two career grand slams in 2006.
2005-06 averages: 14.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.4 blocks <br><br>Noah began the 2005-06 season known mostly as "The Son of Former French Tennis Star Yannick Noah." He ended the season as the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four and the unquestionable driving force behind Florida's run to its first national championship. Noah scored 16 points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked six shots in the NCAA title game against UCLA -- and then, along with fellow sophomore stars Al Horford and Corey Brewer, improbably decided to return to Gainesville for his junior year.
She won six times, had 20 top-10 finishes in 25 starts, ranked first in a handful of statistical categories and dethroned Annika Sorenstam as Player of the Year.
Gore shared carries with Kevan Barlow as a rookie, but always looked like the best back on this team. This season, Gore had the chance to prove it. He ran for 1,491 yards and six touchdowns through 14 games, and appears to be a solid backbone for the young, improving 49ers offense.
In his second full year in the bigs, the heretofore-unheralded Morneau beat out much bigger names to win the AL Most Valuable Player Award. The choice raised some eyebrows, but get this: .321, 34 homers and 130 RBIs for a division champ. That's an MVP.
The numbers tell the story with this shooter. Martin averaged 3.4 points in 64 career games before Dec. 19, 2005. In the days since? He's played in 75 games, and averaged 15.4 points. The 23-year-old Martin (21.2 in 2006-07) is only getting better.
The son of former pro wrestler Joe "The Animal" Laurinaitis made a name for himself as Ohio State's sophomore middle linebacker, leading the top-ranked Buckeyes in tackles (100) and interceptions (5).
The second overall pick of the 2003 draft followed a disappointing rookie season (11 goals and 20 assists in 81 games) with 45 goals, 55 assists, and a Stanley Cup last season. Staal led the Hurricanes in scoring in both the regular season and playoffs, and continues to lead his team in goals nearly halfway through the 2006-07 season.
2006-07 averages (through four games): 15.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.0 blocks <br><br>Everyone knew the 7-foot freshman was coming, seeing that he was the No. 1-ranked recruit in the Class of 2006 -- but many wondered if the Indianapolis product was over-hyped. His first few games of 2006-07 did nothing to damage his status as the likely No. 1 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. Playing with a wrap on his still-healing right wrist, Oden made his delayed debut on Dec. 2 against Valparaiso, putting up 14 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. In the two games after that (against Cleveland State and Cincinnati), he shot a combined 14-of-15 from the field.
The second-round pick out of Miami set an NFL single-season record by returning six kicks for touchdowns -- three of them on punt returns, two on kickoffs and one after a missed field goal. The career record of 13 could be in danger.
On a roster filled with high-priced talent, the Yankees' best starter turned out to be their cheapest. Wang followed up a solid rookie campaign by going 19-6 with a 3.63 ERA. Pretty good for about $350,000.
Diaw spent last season as the 12th man on a 13-win Atlanta Hawks team. A trade to Phoenix, accompanied by a position change (from big guard to smallish big forward) and a newly-fostered sense of purpose led to a season in which he was named Most Improved Player after averaging 13.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game.
Strong performances in preseason camp earned McCoy the starting job, but mature decisions and big wins over the likes of Oklahoma and Nebraska helped ingratiate the red-shirt freshman with Longhorns fans who were still longing for Vince Young.
Paris put together one of the best freshman campaigns on NCAA record, collecting 700 points, 500 rebounds and 100 blocks on the year -- a first in NCAA history. She was named a consensus All-American after averaging 21.9 points, 15 rebounds and 3.2 blocks.
Thomas offers a unique blend of speed and power, and he has become a disruptive force on the NFL's top defense. Through 14 games, he had a career-high 10.5 sacks.
With a chance to play every day, the 28-year-old Sanchez made his first All-Star team, led the NL in doubles and won the league's batting crown with a .344 average. Against lefties, Sanchez was especially potent, hitting .442.
He started 2005-06 still trying to convince doubters that he was, in fact, Miami's most valuable player -- this after leading the Heat in scoring the season before. A 28.6-point, eight-assists-per game campaign in his third year changed those minds. Wade averaged 39.3 points in Miami's four NBA Finals victories, and his overall grace and enduring sense of determination helped earn him Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year honor.
Not even the collapsed lung and bruised ribs he suffered against San Jose State on Nov. 11 could prevent this sophomore from leading the nation in scoring (24 TDs). Johnson, who wore a flak jacket in the season finale against Nevada, may don the extra padding again in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma.
2005-06 averages: 12.3 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.1 blocks <br><br>As a redshirt freshman in 2005-06, Thomas went from being a complete unknown in November to one of the nation's most feared defensive players in March. A 6-foot-9 power forward with bionic legs, Thomas blocked five shots and pulled down 13 rebounds in the Tigers' big Sweet Sixteen win over Duke. He had 21 points and 13 rebounds against Texas to send LSU to the Final Four -- and then turned pro after the season, becoming the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft.
Toliver became a household name during the Terps' run to the NCAA women's basketball title. With Maryland down and time running out, shehit a three-pointer over the Blue Devils' Alison Bales to force overtime. She was named to the Final Four All-Tournament team, the NCAA Albuquerque Regional All-Tournament team and was on the ACC All-Freshman team.