Big-game Gallagher leads Mustangs to historic playoff win, cementing status as WPIAL’s premier two-sport star
Go ahead and add another one to the list.
Rodney Gallagher’s resume is already filled with more memorable touchdowns, buzzer-beaters and late-game heroics than most high school athletes can ever dream of — but that doesn’t mean he has to stop making history. With another signature performance in a 44-15 WPIAL Class 4A first-round playoff win vs. visiting West Allegheny Friday night, Gallagher etched his name even higher into the annals of Western Pennsylvania’s most revered multi-sport athletes.
The numbers might not pop off the page — 170 total yards and three touchdowns, almost all in the first half before the game was out of reach — but make no mistake about it, this was Gallagher at his finest on Friday. Facing an elite West Allegheny team that allowed only 14.2 points per game during the regular season, Laurel Highlands’ star senior appeared as calm and poised as ever in the pocket, seizing complete control of the game from the moment the Mustangs took the field. And any time the Indians gave him room to run, Gallagher attacked the open turf like a pit viper seizing its prey, cutting and weaving and chewing up yardage in the blink of an eye.
“Before the game, I teared up a little bit, just knowing that it was going to be my last game here,” Gallagher said. “I’m glad that we showed out and I can leave on a win like this.”
By halftime, Gallagher’s trio of TDs had stoked Laurel Highlands to a shocking 24-0 lead against a talented West Allegheny team that many expected to manhandle the Mustangs on their own turf. Instead, Laurel Highlands trampled the Indians en route to the first home playoff win in school history — and only the second playoff win in program history after a 28-27 first-round win at Beaver last season.
Guess how many playoff wins the Mustangs had before Gallagher arrived in 2019? Zero.
“My first year was his freshman year. So we’ve been together so long,” said Laurel Highlands coach Rich Kolesar. “We’ve talked many times just about accomplishments he wants to have, and team goals. He’s very team-oriented, not about himself. So it felt really good for us to do this together and make sure he went out with a win on this field.”
Gallagher’s basketball heroics are well-documented — from his game-winning free throws and 24 points as a freshman to dethrone two-time defending WPIAL Class 5A champion Mars at Petersen Events Center, to doing the same thing against defending champ New Castle with 26 points in a double-overtime WPIAL championship win last year. But for all his accolades and unforgettable moments on the hardwood, what Gallagher has done in elevating Laurel Highlands from a perennial bottom-feeder on the gridiron to a legitimate contender in Class 4A might be even more impressive.
Consider this — from 1977 to 2020, the Mustangs never won more than two games in a row to start the season, and they went 24 seasons in a row from 1997 to 2020 without finishing with a winning record. They now have back-to-back winning seasons and back-to-back WPIAL quarterfinal appearances, and they have the one they call “RG3” to thank.
Since converting to quarterback as a junior, Gallagher has combined for more than 4,000 total yards and 60 touchdowns, with 2,604 yards passing and 25 TDs through the air to go with 1,690 yards rushing and 35 scores on the ground. He is expected to play slot receiver in college at West Virginia, but for now, he gives Laurel Highlands its best chance to win by being the first player to touch the ball on every snap.
“He’s got a lot of skill and a lot of ability,” said West Allegheny coach Dave Schoppe. “He was as good as I expected him to be. When you’re going to a Division I program, you’ve got to be a pretty special kid, and he is.”
By leading the Mustangs to a 31-24 win vs. Thomas Jefferson on Sept. 30 — arguably the biggest win in program history until Friday night — Gallagher helped Laurel Highlands secure a share of the Big Seven Conference title, finishing in a three-way tie with McKeesport and T.J. That win marked the second game of what is now a six-game winning streak for the surging Mustangs, who now must face their most daunting opponent yet in the WPIAL quarterfinals. Laurel Highlands will attempt to shock the world against last year’s WPIAL and PIAA Class 3A champion Central Valley, a team that had won 36 games in a row until last week. A win would likely set up a rematch vs. the Jaguars with a trip to the WPIAL championship game at stake.
Of course, football is the ultimate team game, and one player alone won’t be able to make enough difference for the Mustangs to overcome such a massive skill gap against the mighty Warriors. Right?
But what if Central Valley and Laurel Highlands aren’t as far apart in terms of overall talent as they may seem? Could “RG3” have enough magic left in the tank to summon one more historic upset — one that would surely go down as his most remarkable moment of all?
Well, if you’ve been paying attention at all during the past three-plus years, you should be able to answer that last question with three simple words — never say never.
“We know it’s going to be hard winning at their home field. They’re a defending state champion,” Gallagher said. “We’ve got to go in there with the mindset that we can win that football game.”