METHUEN — He may be a record-setting running back, but it never takes long for a discussion about Methuen's Ryan Savastano to quickly turn to his weight room prowess.
"Hands down he is the strongest player, with the highest bench press, on the team." — Coach Tom Tone.
"His bench press is insane. Even the people in the gym stop and say, 'Wow!'" — father and workout partner Ron Savastano.
"He's a monster in the weight room." — teammate Billy Parker.
"He's the strongest guy out there. He's just throwing up 275 or more no problem." — teammate Matt Whittaker.
Actually, his maximum bench press is 305 pounds — nearly twice the 5-6, 170-pound Savastano's weight. And he dead lifts over 450 pounds.
Oh, yeah, and he can play a little football, too.
One year ago, Savastano was an unknown junior with just 40 varsity rushing yards to his name.
Now, he is a reigning Eagle-Tribune All-Star with Methuen's modern area rushing record. He is set to show why he may be the area's premier running back.
"If anyone wants to challenge me, step right up," he said. "I want to show the league that Methuen is still here. I want to break my record from last year."
With 2011 Eagle-Tribune Boys Athlete of the Year Cal Carroll off to pitch at Stonehill, Savastano is now the go-to guy for the Rangers after rushing for 1,297 yards last season.
"Savy is the best running back in the league," said Whittaker. "He hits the holes, runs over people and has the agility to make people miss. He really stepped up last year."
Savastano, in fact, was not even the starter at the end of the 2010 preseason.
As a sophomore, he played almost exclusively JV, carrying just 14 times for the varsity before suffering a broken collarbone against Central Catholic and missing the season's last two games.
"He was a little off our radar going into last season," said Tone, then the Rangers' offensive coordinator. "We thought we'd be running back-by-committee. We were working a few defensive guys in at running back.
"Then, in the first game (against Plymouth North) we ran an inside zone play, he hit a crease and took it all the way. We said, 'Damn, we didn't know he had that kind of speed.'"
Savastano rushed for 115 yards on just 10 carries that day, and he never stopped running.
"That game really boosted my confidence," said Savastano. "After that, I never wanted to show my teammates and fans any less. I wanted to match that every time."
The big games kept coming for Savastano. He tallied seven 100-plus yard games including 242 in a win over Chelmsford, 138 in a victory over MVC Large champ Andover and 114 in a win over Central.
He finished with 1,297 yards, the most for a Methuen running back since The Eagle-Tribune began keeping the statistic in 1993.
"I have been watching him since Pop Warner," said Ron Savastano. "We knew he could run, but I never thought in a million years that was going to happen. I think the coaches were even surprised. But Ryan was confident. He has developed so much before the year."
Savastano's emergence has been primarily attributed to his tremendous work ethic in the weight room.
The biggest thing that changed was he put on a lot of muscle," said Tone. "He got stronger and faster. He really progressed."
During the offseason, Savastano and his father — who also benched over 300 pounds while in college — work out six days a week at the gym. They continue to work out on off days during the season.
"Starting freshman year we started hitting the gym hard," said Ron, a 1977 graduate of Greater Lawrence Tech, where he was a three-sport athlete. "He motivates me after a long day of work. People at the gym always say he should get into (competitive) power lifting."
Savastano's massive arms — which would make an NFL defensive back envious — are one benefit of the lifting, as is his hard-nosed running style.
"He gets low and just plows over people," said Parker. "He always breaks the first tackle, gets off the second tackle and is always going to pick up the extra yards. I love blocking for him."
But if defenses think they can simply clog the middle with pluggers, wrong again.
Savastano also has the speed. He said he was recently clocked at 4.5 in the 40-yard dash.
"I like to think I have the speed," he said. "Breaking a run and hearing the crowd go crazy is great. But it feels great to run over a defender, too.
"I'm small, so I just hide behind my offensive linemen and poke out when I see a hole."
But can Savastano match his junior success now that Eagle-Tribune Offensive MVP Carroll (19 TD passes, 18 TD runs last fall) is gone?
"It's a little nerve-wracking having everyone looking at you," he said. "But it's also exciting to be the star of Methuen. I won't settle. I have a great team around me, and I want to show the league that Methuen is still a contender."
The Savastano File
On the field: Eagle-Tribune All-Star in 2010, rushing for 1,297 yards, the most for a Rangers in the modern era (1993-present). Scored 7 TDs. Played mostly JV as a sophomore, rushing for just 40 varsity yards.
On the mat: Took sixth at 152 pounds at Division 1 state wrestling meet. Missed sophomore year due to broken collarbone in football.
Weight lifting: Bench presses 305 pounds. Dead lifts over 450 pounds. Squats 250 pounds for reps of 25.
Family: Father Ron Savastano played football, baseball and wrestled at Greater Lawrence. Later played baseball at Frostburg State. Uncle Bob Savastano played football at Methuen and Central Catholic. Uncle Dick Savastano played football for Tenney High.
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