Rise and grind

(Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)

A day in the life of one of the WPIAL’s rarest of athletes — a basketball star and swimming record-setter with a 4.0 GPA

In more than 100 years of its existence, the world of WPIAL high school sports has never had an athlete like Joseph Roth.

If that seems like an overstatement, it’s not. Unique is a most appropriate word to describe Roth, a senior at Ellwood City High School.

Roth competes in swimming and basketball. In case you didn’t know, those two sports are in the same season. It’s practically unheard of for a high school athlete to compete in those two because it can be grueling. Sure, the WPIAL has had some athletes try swimming and basketball over the years, but not many. Athletes don’t generally go from shooting jumpers to jumping in a pool.

Certainly, no athlete in the history of the WPIAL has made a splash in both sports like Roth.

See highlights from the Ellwood City-New Brighton game. (Mike White/Post-Gazette)

Joseph Connor Roth (he prefers Joseph over Joe) is 18, the youngest of Rick and Denise Roth’s five children. In swimming, he is a state record holder and multiple-time state champion who also owns WPIAL championships and a WPIAL record. In basketball, the 6-foot-5, 195-pound Roth has been a four-year starter and a WPIAL champ. This season, he is second in entire WPIAL in scoring, surpassed 1,000 rebounds for his career and is closing in on 2,000 points. Only a few in WPIAL history have been 2,000-1,000 players.

“If you take a step back and try to put things in perspective, I don’t know if there has ever been an athlete in the WPIAL to excel in two sports like this at the same time like him,” said Ellwood City basketball coach Dan Bradley.

Ellwood City basketball coach Dan Bradley cheers on the team. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)

The Wolverines scramble during their game against New Brighton on Jan. 31. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)

Roth, though, doesn’t see what he’s doing as extraordinary. “It’s just what I do,” he said, nonchalantly.

And don’t forget Roth also was on Ellwood City’s golf team the past two years and in the spring will likely be a starting first baseman in baseball for the third season. Not to be outdone, has a 4.0 grade-point average in the classroom.

But living the life of an elite swimmer, star basketball player and honors student can be rough, exhausting, demanding and taxing. The Post-Gazette decided to follow around Roth in his ultra-busy world for a day and chronicle his activity. Here is a day in the life of a one-of-a-kind WPIAL athlete from Wednesday, Jan. 31:

Making the grade

Joseph, left, works on a business math assignment at Ellwood City High School. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)

7:00 a.m.: Roth awakens and immediately goes downstairs of the family home in Wayne Township (Lawrence County) to eat his usual breakfast on school days — cereal. His mother already has a bowl out on the kitchen island and Roth fills it with Frosted Cheerios.

“Hey, they’re my favorite,” Roth says.

7:30: Ryan Widmaier, an Ellwood City basketball teammate and one of Roth’s good friends, arrives and drives Roth to school.

7:45: School begins at Ellwood City. Roth takes six classes — college psychology, American government, pre-calculus, Spanish, English and financial math.

Joseph gets ready for the day before leaving home. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)


If you think Roth is just all about sports, consider that 4.0 grade average. And considering his athletic accomplishments and his excellence in the classroom, it’s understandable why Ellwood City holds Roth in such high regard. But it’s also because of Roth’s attitude, his drive to succeed yet humble, easygoing and soft-spoken demeanor.

“You can really tell a lot of our student body looks up to him,” Ellwood City school principal John Sovich said. “He’s a great role model to emulate. His work ethic is just unbelievable, but he’s kind of quiet, too. He’s very comfortable in just who he is.

“It’s very rare for a school district of our size to have anyone like him. In fact, it’s rare for any district to have someone like him.”

Mike White interviews Joseph Roth. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)

Roth’s favorite class is financial math. He sees himself as a business major in college, with ideas of running his own business someday. His father is a dentist and his mother works in the marketing field.

“I’m proud I can say I’ve done well on the basketball court, in the pool and in the classroom, too,” Roth said.

Financial math is Joseph’s favorite class. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)

12:30 p.m.: Because he is a senior and because his grades are excellent, Roth is permitted to leave school a little after noon every day. Some other seniors have the same privilege. Widmaier drives Roth to his house for lunch. Roth munches on a few enchiladas that were made by his mother. Denise Roth also ordered in some food from Nico Luciano’s, an Ellwood City restaurant.

On most weekdays, it’s usually school, swim practice and then either basketball practice or a game for Roth. The only day off from sports is Sundays because Saturdays usually start with swim practice from 7 to 9 a.m., followed by basketball practice. Roth’s parents commend their son’s swim and basketball coaches for working out schedules to accommodate Joseph. That wouldn’t happen at many other schools because of the pressure to choose one.

Denise Roth wraps a bandage around Joseph’s swollen elbow. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)

The time between lunch and swim practice is usually when Roth does schoolwork. But he also might just sit and relax for a little in between lunch and swim practice.

When asked what the toughest part is of competing in swimming and basketball, while also keeping up high grades, Roth said, “I think it’s just the pain in my body sometimes. The past two years have been a little tough on me. There have been a lot of ice baths, massages, stretches — anything to take care of my body.”

In stitches

Joseph gets stitches removed from a cut caused when he got elbowed in the face during a basketball game. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)

2:15: After lunch and a little relaxation, Roth packs everything for a swim practice at 3 and then an away basketball game at night. But before swim practice, he has an appointment at a doctor’s office.

2:26: Roth arrives at his doctor’s appointment. In a basketball game against Mohawk Jan. 26, Roth went after a loose ball and got an elbow in the face that opened up a decent-sized cut on his nose that drew blood. Roth had to leave the game while a trainer stopped the bleeding. Roth returned to the game and finished with 51 points. He went to a hospital immediately afterward and received three stitches.

Before a doctor removed Roth’s stitches, a woman who also works in the office stopped in a room where Roth was in a chair and looked at his stitches.

“You have stitches. What does the other guy look like?” the woman said.

“He’s fine,” Roth said. “I was going to tell people I was fighting a bear over the weekend, but I didn’t think they’d believe me.”

Making waves

Joseph swims for Riverside High because Ellwood City doesn't have a swim team. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)

2:37: The stitches are removed in a few minutes and Roth heads from the doctor’s office to nearby Riverside High School for a swim practice. Ellwood City doesn’t have a swim team, so Roth swims for Riverside High School under a cooperative sponsorship agreement that is allowed by the PIAA, the governing body of Pennsylvania high school sports.

3:06: Roth jumps into the water for practice. This will be a “light” practice because Riverside has meets Thursday and Friday. Plus, Roth has to catch a 4:30 team bus back at Ellwood City for the team’s away game at New Brighton.

A “light” practice means about an hour of swimming. Regular Riverside swim practices last anywhere from two to two-and-a-half hours. And after just about every practice, Roth leaves and goes back to Ellwood City for a two-hour practice or a game.

“The thing is there’s been maybe two times over the last two years when he kind of said, ‘I have a section basketball game, so maybe let’s not kill me in the pool,’” said Riverside swim coach Alaina Marshall. “But he never says, ‘I’m not going to try today.’ He’s just not that kid. He always gives everything he has.”

Roth has been swimming and playing basketball since a young age. Basketball is big in his family. His father played at Blackhawk. Besides Joseph, brothers Anthony and Alexander scored 1,000 career points at Ellwood City and Rick got close. Sister Bella played basketball at Ellwood City and then Geneva College.

In Joseph’s freshman year at Ellwood City (2020-21), Alexander also was on the Riverside swim team and a starter on the Ellwood City basketball team. That year, Ellwood City won its first WPIAL basketball title and the Roth brothers also won gold medals at the WPIAL swim championships. Alexander now swims at IUP. Anthony, Rick and Bella never swam.

A pool workout lasts two or more hours. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)


But Joseph Roth’s career in swimming has been filled with gold. He set a state Class 2A record in the 100-yard backstroke as a sophomore and defended his state title last year. He also has won a few state titles on relay teams. On the WPIAL level, he has won the Class 2A championship in the 100 backstroke all three years of his high school career and set a record each year. He also has won the 50 freestyle title once and a few relay championships.

“I think I can break my state record time this year,” Roth said.

4:00: Practice finishes for Roth and he goes to the locker room and dresses in his Ellwood City basketball travel suit pants and a black T-shirt with “Kakashi” on it. It’s his favorite cartoon character from an animated series.

4:10: Riverside’s trainer examines Roth’s swollen right elbow and has him do some elbow exercises. Roth has bursitis from falling and hitting the elbow on the basketball court a few times. “It’s fine,” Roth says when swim coach Marshall comes over to check on Roth.

Roth has a tremendous body type for a swimmer. He’s tall, has long arms and wide shoulders. When asked if he could invite anyone in the world to dinner, Roth answered Michael Phelps, legendary Olympic swimmer. Phelps is 6-foot-4. Roth is one inch taller.

Joseph practices the butterfly stroke. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)

“A lot of college swim coaches would ask me, does he want to swim in college or play basketball?” Marshall said. “I’ve told every coach his heart is in the pool. Swimming doesn’t draw a huge crowd of spectators. That’s basketball. But if you think he’s amazing on the basketball court, go watch him in the pool. When he’s able to put all his energy into just swimming, he’s going to blow college athletes out of the water.”

Roth has decided to swim after high school and he will do it at a Division I college. He will likely make his college decision in the next few weeks.

But although Roth knows his future is in swimming, he said his favorite sport to play is probably still basketball.

He's 'just a winner'

Joseph catches the team bus for a basketball game at New Brighton. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)

4:18: Roth still hasn’t left Riverside’s pool for the short drive back to Ellwood City High School to catch the team bus for the away game at New Brighton. The bus is scheduled to leave at 4:30. “For some reason, I don’t think the bus will leave without ‘you,’” Marshall says with a laugh.

4:32: Roth arrives at Ellwood City and walks into the gym where the team meets before getting on the bus. Yes, he’s two minutes late, but it’s not a big deal because basketball coach Bradley knows where Roth has been, knows his busy schedule and knows the one-of-a-kind athlete that Roth is.

Bradley is in his first season as Ellwood City’s basketball coach, but he’s a two-sport guy himself. He also is Ellwood City’s football coach. But those two sports aren’t in the same season.

“I think the people who truly understand best what he’s doing are swimmers,” Bradley said. “Swimmers’ workouts are extremely tough, exhausting. For him to come and play basketball also every day, and play it at a high level, says a lot about his conditioning and work ethic. The kid is just a winner.”

4:39: The team boards the bus for the 20-minute ride to New Brighton. But before the team gets on the bus, Roth’s brother, Rick, hands Joseph a plastic container that has Joseph’s dinner in it. Rick Roth is an Ellwood City basketball assistant coach.

For away games, Joseph usually goes right from swim practice to the team bus, so his mother makes dinner for Joseph to eat on the bus. Joseph parks himself in the last seat and begins eating the chicken and rice with broccoli.

Eating dinner on the team bus helps Joseph keep to his schedule. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)

“I’ve become pretty good at eating on a bus,” Roth says with a laugh. “I’d rather eat on the bus than in the gym.”

Denise Roth tries to make sure her son eats healthy — and enough, because of the calories he burns from the two sports.

“I feel like I’ve been stuck for a few years between 190 and 200 pounds,” Joseph Roth said. “I’d like to stick around 200 to 210, but it’s hard to keep weight on. I’ll eat a lot sometimes, but other times I won’t. I should probably eat more throughout the day.

Basket case

Joseph, number 35, drives to the hoop against New Brighton’s Brian Taylor during the Jan. 31 game at New Brighton. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)

5:30: Roth gets up some shots while the JV team warms up for its 6 p.m. game. Is he tired yet, going from one thing to another all day? Nope. “It’s just what I do,” Roth says.

7:30: The varsity game starts. Ellwood City breezes to a 67-31 win against an overmatched New Brighton team that has a 2-14 record. Ellwood City has already clinched a WPIAL playoff spot and the win lifts the Wolverines’ record to 12-7. For Roth, it’s a typical game. He does a little of everything, playing mostly inside but showing off his passing ability on offense with nine assists. He nearly has a triple-double, finishing with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 5 blocked shots. Roth has had a few triple-doubles this season.

Look at Roth’s statistics this basketball season and he’s proven to be one of the best all-around players in the WPIAL. He plays mostly inside but is versatile enough to handle the ball and shoot a few 3-pointers (he has made 17 this season).

Joseph moves the ball down court against New Brighton’s Joey Kennedy during the Jan. 31 game. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)

After Tuesday’s win against Beaver Falls, Roth is averaging 26.4 points, and also 14.8 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 2.4 steals and 2.8 blocks. He was shooting 58% from the field and 34% from 3-point range.

Roth has been a starter since his freshman season and pulled down his 1,000th career rebound a few weeks ago. After Tuesday’s game, Roth has 1,930 points and 1,084 rebounds. He has averaged an impressive 22.7 points over 85 career games in four seasons. With two more games left in the regular season and at least one playoff game, Roth has a decent chance at reaching 2,000 career points. Only a few players in the history of the WPIAL have scored 2,000 points and grabbed 1,000 rebounds. So Roth has a chance to add to his elite status.

Joseph shoots foul shots in the Jan. 31 game against New Brighton. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)

“I don’t think people realize how tough it is to accomplish what Joe has simultaneously in swimming and basketball,” Bradley said.

Bradley thinks Roth could play at the NCAA Division II college level for basketball, but Roth received virtually no recruiting interest from colleges for basketball. He was recruited much more for swimming.

“He’s well-versed in a lot of things [in basketball],” Bradley said. “He’s a very skilled big man — or big guard, whatever you want to call him.”

8:46: After the team dresses, Roth comes out of the locker room and talks with some family members, friends and fans on the court. His sister, Bella, who played basketball at Ellwood City and Geneva College, points out to her baby brother that he needs more arc on his free throws. He finished 3 of 7 from the free throw line.

The future

The end of high school is hovering on the horizon for Joseph. He has yet to make a college decision, but he has decided to participate only in swimming in college. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)

9:00: Some of Roth’s teammates are talking about going to Buffalo Wild Wings in Cranberry for a postgame bite to eat. “I don’t know if I’m up for that,” says Roth, maybe finally showing a little sign of fatigue.

9:45: Roth arrives home. He showers, eats a bowl of Frosted Cheerios — what else? — and watches a little college basketball on TV.

11 p.m.: Roth goes to bed, 16 hours after he got out of it. It was a day of one thing after another. But in reality, it’s a routine day in the life of Joseph Roth.

Roth has high hopes for the WPIAL and PIAA swim championships and also believes the Ellwood City basketball team could make some noise in the Class 3A playoffs. After basketball and swimming, he’ll play his third season as a starting first baseman for the Ellwood City baseball team. Then it’s graduation and college.

“In college, I’ll just be focusing on swimming and not worry about other sports,” Roth said. “I really haven’t done that my whole life. I’m excited to see what I can do [in swimming] and how much I can improve.”

Get to know Joseph Roth with Mike White. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)

Throughout Roth’s high school journey, he has been asked many times simply, “why?” Why would a teenager compete in two tough sports at the same time?

“If I tried to pick one sport at this age, it would be tough. I’d feel like I’m failing my friends,” Roth said. “Typically, after a basketball game, I’ll feel beat up. I’ll wake up the next day and have trouble getting up. I have to lay down for five more minutes. I’ll limp downstairs and my body might be sore. But I remind myself that I chose to do this. Then I just push through it and have fun.”

Mike White: mwhite@post-gazette.com and Twitter @mwhiteburgh