Power, pizzazz in the trenches at Methuen

METHUEN, Mass. -- Together, they call themselves simply "The Core". Separate, they go by an assortment of names, from Big Steve to Zaz to Stapes or just plain old Big Ugly.

Separate, they are a broad spectrum of personalities around the Methuen High locker room. Some, like brothers Sean and Matt Whittaker, are economic with their words and sit quietly in the moments before kickoff. Others, like 6-foot-4 senior left tackle Steve DiZazzo, are colorful with their language, and are running around the locker room banging heads.

DiZazzo on his pregame routine: "I'm reminding everyone it's 44 minutes of Ranger football, and nobody else's. I'm jumping around, making sure everybody's into it. This is what I live for."

On his liberal application of eye-blackener: "Black paint all over...I do the Ray Lewis, all around."

On this week's atmosphere, leading up to tomorrow's showdown with Dracut for the Merrimack Valley Small title: "I have every Al Bundy coming up to me this week. My dad always tells me, I'm living every high school football player's dream."

Still others, like 6-foot-4, 300-pound senior left guard Dan Cormier, are known to channel their inner Tom Dempsey. After a Methuen touchdown, Cormier hops over to the sideline to switch his right foot into a vintage, solid-black cleat with the toe squared off. The former soccer player then rumbles straightforward on the ensuing kickoff and blasts the ball with a toe kick, with plenty of air, usually all the way into the end zone.

"I must have been dying out there in soccer," Cormier jokes. "But my parents found this online, ordered it, and I've been using it ever since...Because I kick straight on, this works better than a regular curve."

Together, though, they are the biggest reason for the Rangers' 9-1 record headed into the winner-take-all showdown with their archrival. All but one, center Matt Whittaker, are seniors and two-year starters in the trenches; and with former Lowell High coach Al Pare now on head coach Pat Graham's staff, the Rangers have perfected a zone-blocking scheme that emphasizes double-teams and chip blocks to get diminutive junior running back Ryan Savastano up to the second level. With Sean Whittaker and Tyler Bolduc on the right, along with Cormier and DiZazzo on the left and tight end James Staples providing extra coverage in the run game, it's been a flawless run so far.

So much so, even star quarterback Cal Carroll (19 total touchdowns) admits, "Sometimes I feel like me and Ryan are just products of them."

The master stroke may have come in week five, against a Chelmsford squad that to that point in the season had allowed a mere seven points. Much preseason hype had been made of the Lions' linebacking corps led by Zach Hayes and Tim Joy; but with a no-huddle tempo, and flawless technique up front, the Rangers accumulated over 300 yards on the ground. Those linebackers often found a defensive lineman planted right into them, and Carroll -- with his left (non-throwing) thumb in a cast -- called inside zone runs to him and Savastano almost exclusively. Methuen won, 31-21; so far, only No. 25 Plymouth North has been the only team to not only defeat them, but hold the Rangers to a touchdown.

"I keep telling them week after week, you don't go anywhere unless we move the football," Pare said. "It's great to be around these kids. They're tough kids."

And Pare, who thinks this may be his last year coaching after 40 years around the area, keeps it just as light-hearted. Every week, a bone with a chain attached is handed out to the best performing lineman -- "I call it my dead grandmother's thigh," he jokes -- and the award, among other things, is fully embraced.

"I think it's good to have such personalities," said head coach Pat Graham, himself a former lineman at Central Connecticut State. "Usually they're underappreciated, but they take alot of pride in what they do. Their leadership is unbelievable. They've always been in the weight room, always been lifting since freshman year, and it's not like they're rah-rah in practice. They're focused, they're a tight group, they support each other, and I think the best quality about them is their work ethic."

Two years ago, on their home grass at Nicholson Stadium, the Rangers saw their program take a turn for the better when they upset the heavily-favored Dracut Middies on Thanksgiving. The Middies, led by Gatorade Player of the Year Matt Grimard, went on to win the Division 1A Super Bowl in dominant fashion. Now, with as many as 8,000 expected to show at Nicholson, The Core can be the first Methuen squad since 1992 to be playing in the postseason.

Think they're fired up?

"Two years ago, playing on this field, it was just nuts," Sean Whittaker said. "I can't wait for another experience like that. It's going to be crazy, I can't wait."