5 things we learned in Week 8: Laurel Highlands’ Rodney Gallagher delivers again in must-win game

Sunday, October 24, 2021 | 2:05 AM

Laurel Highlands’ Rodney Gallagher has delivered many times before in must-win situations, but those often had him holding a basketball in his hands.

Friday’s challenge was a little different for the star junior. If Laurel Highlands intended to make the WPIAL football playoffs, the Mustangs had to win at Trinity. Yet, again, Gallagher came through clutch.

“If we would have lost that game, I think we all would have been down on ourselves because we know we can compete,” said Gallagher, who rushed for a career-high 285 yards and scored five touchdowns in a 39-34 victory that’s sure to be remembered among Laurel Highlands’ biggest games in years.

The win clinched the Mustangs their first playoff berth since 2015, but they also secured their first winning record since 1996. That was eight years before Gallagher was born.

He scored on runs of 23, 1, 75, 58 and 4 yards, with his last touchdown providing the winning points. Gallagher also passed for 100 yards and another score.

“I was just in awe because I’d never got to experience something like that before,” he said. “Finally realizing we’d made the football playoffs for the first time in my high school career, it was great.”

Laurel Highlands started this season with the first 5-0 start in team history before running into the three conference heavyweights in the Big Eight. The Mustangs’ early success started to slip away after consecutive losses to Belle Vernon, Thomas Jefferson and McKeesport, making Friday’s game a must-win.

Had Trinity won Friday, the Hillers likely would have claimed the fourth and final playoff spot from the Big Eight instead.

“We obviously know we had the hardest conference, and it’s going to take a lot to beat those three teams,” Gallagher said. “So, we had to make sure we got the job finished when we played all of the other teams.”

Gallagher, who plays quarterback and defensive back for Laurel Highlands, ranks among the top athletes in the state and has major Division I offers in both football and basketball. He spent Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field watching Pitt defeat Clemson.

Not over ‘til it’s over

The wildest finish of the week surely belonged to Ligonier Valley and Shady Side Academy.

With 24 seconds left in Friday’s game, Ligonier Valley led 26-19 and needed only to kneel down for a victory, but things got complicated. A fumbled snap was knocked 20 yards downfield, where Shady Side’s Isaiah Beckham scooped and scored on a 60-yard fumble return.

Now trailing only by a point, Shady Side went for the win and called a 2-point play, but the run was stuffed short of the goal line.

Ligonier Valley escaped with 26-25 win.

“We almost took a game from the jaws of victory to the agony of defeat in 24 seconds,” Ligonier Valley coach Roger Beitel said after the game. “Wow. What a game. What a win. Our kids made the play at the end to secure a victory, and that’s all that really matters.”

Welcome to the playoffs

Struggling programs should draw a measure of hope from Ambridge and Leechburg. Those two playoff-bound teams are proof that with perseverance, better are days ahead.

Consider, Ambridge (2-7, 2-2) started this season with a losing streak that quickly reached 28 games, yet the Bridgers and first-year coach Sherman McBride are headed to the WPIAL playoffs after wins over Hopewell in Week 5 and Quaker Valley this week. The postseason berth is Ambridge’s first since 2015.

Leechburg waited longer.

The Blue Devils (7-2, 4-2) are playoff-bound for the first time since 1988, ending a 33-year drought that ranked as the longest active streak in the WPIAL. They clinched a playoff spot Friday night with a 66-6 victory over Imani Christian.

Them again? Tigers stun TJ

McKeesport did it again.

For the second year in a row, the Tigers surprised Thomas Jefferson in conference play, improving their all-time record to 2-0 against the Jaguars. The schools are less than 15 miles apart, yet the teams hadn’t met before last year. They’d played in different classifications until McKeesport dropped to Class 4A prior to last season.

McKeesport won 42-28 at home Friday, a year after winning 20-14 at Thomas Jefferson.

3-way race for Northeastern

A four-way tie for first place in the Northeast was narrowed down to three teams Friday, but the Class 5A conference might finish that way. North Hills, Penn Hills and Pine-Richland are all 3-1 in the conference. All three clinched playoffs spots.

However, with head-to-head tiebreakers unable to separate the teams, Gardner Points or margin of victory could be needed to decide their finishing order. Pine-Richland defeated Penn Hills in Week 5, Penn Hills defeated North Hills in Week 6, and North Hills defeated Pine-Richland in Week 7.

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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