When the PIAA basketball playoffs tip off Friday, it will mark the beginning of Rodney Gallagher’s final ride as what you could call the jockey of the Laurel Highlands Mustangs.
Gallagher entered high school with an enormous amount of hype, and it’s safe to say he has lived up to all of it on both the basketball court and football field. He has led Laurel Highlands to new heights in both sports, but there is one thing he hasn’t accomplished — leading the Mustangs to a state title.
“Me and my guys, we’re confident that we’re going to make a run in this tournament and we’re going to do everything we can to win it,” said Gallagher, a West Virginia football recruit.
Laurel Highlands (22-3) will need to string together five more wins to win a first PIAA title. The Mustangs reached their only state final in 1968. They advanced to the quarterfinals a season ago, their deepest run since that ’68 season. They will open up the playoffs with a Class 4A first-round game at District 9 champion Clearfield (17-6) at 7 p.m. Friday.
When Gallagher began his freshman year at Laurel Highlands, the Mustangs had not won a WPIAL basketball title in 52 years and were coming off a season in which they finished just 4-17. The football team had gone just 3-7 the season before, had not finished with a winning record since 1996, and had never won a WPIAL playoff game.
That’s when the “Gallagher Effect” began to make a huge impact. Since he has arrived on the high school scene, Gallagher has led Laurel Highlands to a pair of WPIAL basketball titles — in dramatic fashion, too — and its first two football playoff wins. The football team went 8-3 and 8-4 in his final two seasons, and the basketball team has compiled an 80-17 record while he has been there. The Mustangs were 27-0 last season before being bounced by Gateway in the PIAA quarterfinals.
“It would be the icing on the cake,” Gallagher said of winning a state title. “I’ve had one of the best careers of any athlete in the state of PA. I’m up there now, but if we get this, I would be up there even higher.”
Following a loss to North Catholic in the WPIAL semifinals, Laurel Highlands bounced back in impressive fashion by defeating Highlands by 23 points in the third-place game. Gallagher scored a game-high 26 points to become the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,948, breaking the record of 1,936 set by 1993 graduate Nick Bosnic. Should the Mustangs play at least two PIAA games, Gallagher will have a good shot to reach 2,000.
Gallagher and fellow senior guard Keondre DeShields are the driving forces for a team that lost three starters from last season. The most significant loss was that of guard Brandon Davis, an all-section choice who transferred to Keystone Academy, a prep school in Erie. So, a three-headed monster became a two-headed monster. Gallagher and DeShields both average about 22 points a game.
Lincoln Park, Uniontown and North Catholic are the only teams to beat the Mustangs this season. If another team is able to do it over these next two weeks, it will mark the final game of Gallagher’s illustrious Laurel Highlands career.
Gallagher will undoubtedly leave a large legacy at the school, and he has a good idea of how he wants to be remembered.
“Just as a kid that came in and wanted to change the culture,” Gallagher said. “I wanted kids to have someone to look up to, so I wanted to step in and make that happen. I want to be remembered as a guy that was a role model to kids and to continue to do that as my career goes on. Kids that look up to me, I want them to know they can do the same or even more.”
A trio of Philadelphia teams come into the tournament nationally ranked by MaxPreps, and none of them are strangers to winning state titles. Each of them actually did it just last season. Class 5A Imhotep Charter (25-3) is No. 6, Class 6A Roman Catholic (23-3) is No. 20 and Class 4A Neumann-Goretti (22-3) is No. 21.
The headline player among those teams is Imhotep Charter’s Justin Edwards, a 6-foot-7 forward and Kentucky recruit. Rivals ranks him the No. 4 player in the senior class. The Panthers also feature standout junior guards Ahmad Nowell and Rahmir Barno. Nowell’s list of offers include Kansas, Memphis and Tennessee. Barno verbally committed to Florida Gulf Coast. The Panthers, who recently won their third consecutive Philadelphia Public League title, defeated New Castle, 54-39, in last year’s championship game.
Roman Catholic defeated Neumann-Goretti, 57-52, in last week’s Philadelphia Catholic League championship at the Palestra. Senior guard Xzayvier Brown (16.1 ppg) was the star, hitting a desperation 3-pointer in the closing seconds of regulation to force overtime. Brown is headed to St. Joseph’s, as is 6-7 senior forward Anthony Finkley. Shareef Jackson (10.7 ppg) is a talented 6-7 sophomore and son of former Temple star and NBA player Marc Jackson. The Cahillites will play without two of their starters, who must sit out due to PIAA transfer rules.
Neumann-Goretti also has a big-time national recruit in junior point guard Robert Wright III (22.2 ppg), a Baylor verbal commit and the No. 27 player nationally in his class. His offers also include Pitt, Gonzaga and Miami. Teammate Sultan Adewale (14.7 ppg, 9.9 rpg) is a 6-7 senior forward with Power Five offers. Adewale, originally from England, is in his second season playing for the Saints after transferring from a school in St. Louis.
Since 2009, the three schools have combined to win 21 PIAA titles. Neumann-Goretti has nine, Imhotep Charter eight and Roman Catholic four.
Players to watch
The WPIAL will have three players ranked among the top 100 in their classes competing in the state tournament, and all are underclassmen. North Hills 6-7 forward Royce Parham is No. 82 in the junior class, Lincoln Park 6-4 guard Meleek Thomas is No. 7 in the sophomore class and Imani Christian 6-11 center Alier Maluk is No. 16 in the sophomore class. Another top WPIAL player to watch is Lincoln Park 6-4 junior guard and Pitt recruit Brandin “Beebah” Cummings.
In addition to those previously mentioned star players from Philly, there are a few other big names in this tournament. One of them is Philadelphia Catholic League MVP Jalil Bethea (23.3 ppg), a 6-4 junior point guard at Class 6A Archbishop Wood and the No. 39 player in his class. Pitt, Villanova and UCLA are among the schools to offer. Bethea connected on 11 3-pointers and scored 37 points against North Hills in last year’s quarterfinals.
Class 5A Archbishop Ryan has 6-9 junior forward Thomas Sorber, who averages 17.9 points a game and has offers from the likes of Villanova, Syracuse and Maryland. Davion Hill is a senior guard at Class 2A St. John Neumann with a lot of high-major interest. Hill scored 60 points in a game this season.
Roman Catholic (6A), Imhotep Charter (5A), Neumann-Goretti (4A), Devon Prep (3A), Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (2A) and Bishop Canevin (1A) all won PIAA titles last season. Devon Prep, OLSH and Bishop Canevin are all back, only OLSH now plays in 3A and Canevin in 2A. Devon Prep, which topped Aliquippa in last year’s final, graduated star IV Pettit from its first PIAA title team but has back 6-5 senior guard Jacen Holloway (Army recruit) and 6-4 senior guard Lucas Orchard, who has an offer from Monmouth.