METHUEN, Mass. -- Here in this blue-collar city, nestled on the New Hampshire border, lies a certain reputation -- an identity, if you will -- that has come to be embraced.
Some call it toughness, others a chip on the shoulder. At Methuen High, it's a pathos of never initiating, but never relenting.
"It's like our swag, you know. It's kind of a Methuen thing," said Rangers quarterback Cal Carroll. "Kids around school have it, too, not just the football players...I wouldn't say 'cocky', but we never back down. That's a good way to put it."
Says head coach Pat Graham, "We've been known as a tough, scrappy group, which I think is a pretty good description of us. We're usually alot smaller than other teams, but we tend to just play really hard. I think last year, what happened is we won alot of games we weren't expected to win, and this year people have given us more credit."
In a relatively short time, Graham turned the Rangers from the Merrimack Valley Conference's welcome mat (33 straight losses before his hiring in 2007) to a lunch-pail gang capable of pulling the upset on anyone (see: Dracut, Thanksgiving 2008; Andover, Central Catholic, 2009). So try as they might, after quietly going 15-7 over the last two seasons, the Rangers are no longer perceived as the little engine that could.
Spearheading that change of winds is Carroll. The Rangers favor a zone-read look on offense, and without a consistent running game in 2009, the 6-foot, 180-pound signal-caller took matters into his own hands, eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark in rushing and passing and totaling 26 touchdowns (15 rushing). Lacking the speed of an outside runner and the size to handle continuous punishment up the middle, Carroll merely bulls his neck and plows ahead without regard for his safety -- "I'm here to play, not here to worry about bumps and bruises," he said.
"I'm always trying to crawl for the extra yards," he continued. "Even if it's just a spin move or that extra half-yard, I'll get that. No matter what it takes, I'll get that."
So perhaps it makes sense that Carroll dons the No. 16 in honor of a former Ranger player, wideout Dave Koerner -- "6-3, jumped through the roof," Carroll recalled of Koerner, who currently plays at Coastal Carolina. Carroll fondly recalls Koerner breaking his ankle midway through the 2007 season, and arriving Thanksgiving morning in full gear, taping his ankle "max, as if he was going to try to walk out there and play". He didn't, but two captains carried him out to midfield for the coin toss.
Graham, whose coaching career has taken him extensively through the college ranks before Methuen, doesn't hesitate to call Carroll one of the most competitive players he's ever coached.
"It's just one of those things, I know people like to make the joke, but he's the type of kid that would dive on the ground scraping, no matter what you were playing," Graham said. "His wanting to win, his overachieving, you can just see it. He just practices really hard every day, diving to get that extra inch in practice. Just a very serious kid who's driven and wants to win."
Helping relieve the load this year is senior Raudy Minaya, a close friend and basketball teammate of Carroll's. The two go back quite a ways, and their chemistry pays off on their timed routes. Able to jab-step and turn his hips on a corner route just as well as he can break a tackle, the Rangers will be putting the ball in Minaya's hands in a variety of ways after seeing him get pressed in double-coverage late last season.
With these newfound declarations of respect, of course, come the voices of reason hammering down egos with the stick of humility. But sometimes, you can't help but let that swagger leak through a little bit. Asked about their preseason together so far, Carroll grins about the touchdowns he's connected with his buddy in three scrimmages.
"Five times, right?" Carroll asked Minaya, with a bump of the fists.
It's a Methuen thing.
METHUEN AT A GLANCE
2009: 8-3 (6-3 MVC)
Coach: Pat Graham (fourth year, 17-16)
Players to watch: Cal Carroll, Sr., QB/S, 6-0, 170 lbs (1,058 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns; 1,035 passing yards, 11 touchdowns); Raudy Minaya, Sr., WR/DB, 6-2, 195 lbs; Mike Harper, Sr., LB/RB, 5-10, 200 lbs; Jason Doyle, Sr., OL/DE, 6-0, 195 lbs; Ryan Savastano, Jr., RB/DB, 5-9, 170 lbs; Tyler Bolduc, Sr., OT/DE, 6-1, 190 lbs; Sean Whittaker, Sr., OT/DL, 6-1, 265 lbs; Matt Whittaker, Jr., OG/DL, 6-0, 215 lbs; Dan Cormier, Sr., OL/DL, 6-4, 300 lbs; Steve Dizazzo, Sr., OL/DL, 6-3, 250 lbs; Kevin Higgins, Sr., WR/DB, 6-2, 165 lbs; Jimmy Staples, Sr., TE/DB, 6-2, 200 lbs; Jeff McAndrew, Sr., WR/DB, 5-11, 175 lbs; Eric LaCroix, Jr., DB, 6-2, 170 lbs; Matt Delmonte, Sr., LB/RB, 5-9, 200 lbs.
Strengths: Offensive experience, offensive line.
Weaknesses: Inexperience on defense, secondary.
Outlook: The Rangers will be looking for more balance in their offensive gameplan after leaving Carroll to shoulder most of the load as a dual-threat quarterback. Savastano has emerged as the front-runner at running back, but look for Minaya to get involved in a variety of ways, including taking handoffs out of the backfield and -- for the first time -- returning kicks. "He's a special kid as far as making plays and doing big things," Graham said. The experienced offensive line, led by the Whittaker brothers, will be counted upon to open up running lanes again, and match up favorably at the point of attack. Defensively, it will be tough to replace last year's MVC Small Co-Defensive Player of the Year, John McCarthy, and the Rangers may experiment with a three-man front at times. But they will remain a blitz-oriented squad, perhaps even up to 50 percent of the time.