Laurel Highlands steps into spotlight for marquee matchup with Belle Vernon

Thursday, September 30, 2021 | 11:19 PM

It’s been a long time coming for the Laurel Highlands football program.

Sitting at 5-0 on the season, the best start in program history, the Mustangs have strived to reach moments like the one they’ll be in Friday night.

Rodney Gallagher and the gang travel into Rostraver Township to face top-ranked Belle Vernon Area in a battle of unbeatens, looking to get a leg up in the Big 8 Conference standings.

While the Mustangs are riding high, the Leopards (4-0, 2-0) may be riding higher after knocking off perennial powerhouse and back-to-back state champion Thomas Jefferson.

“This is right where our team wanted to be at the start of the season,” Laurel Highlands coach Rich Kolesar said. “Our focus this week is controlling what we can control and knowing that we deserve to be here. Our guys understand how hard they’ve worked to get to this point, and they want to prove they belong with the elite teams in the WPIAL. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, but by no means are we content with five wins.”

Tonight’s game starts the gauntlet for Laurel Highlands with Thomas Jefferson and McKeesport looming the next two weeks.

“For us coming in, we’re riding that high and it’s just one of those things where you don’t want to have that proverbial letdown,” Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert said. “The kids have a little extra motivation with the time of social media going back and forth. That’s the goal, to constantly keep them up. This is a big one. And excuse the pun, but we have to corral them.”

With the Mustangs, it all starts with the new RGIII in the backfield. Rodney Gallagher has become the full-time quarterback in the offense and has thrived as the catalyst for the Mustangs.

Already with a number of Division I offers for basketball and football, Gallagher has thrown for 570 yards, completing 44 of 70 passes. He has nine touchdown passes and two interceptions. He’s also the team’s leading rusher with 471 yards and 10 touchdowns.

“All roads for them come from Rod running that run-pass option,” Humbert said. “I think our defensive line will be fine in doing their job. The key will be our backers. They have to be aggressive while keeping him contained and putting a hit on that kid on every snap.”

One player Humbert has high expectations for in Friday’s game is Logan Hoffman. The Leopards’ middle linebacker finished with a whopping 19 tackles in the win over TJ last week.

“I think Logan will have a great game, and I know he still wasn’t sold on a couple things from his performance last week,” Humbert said. “He’s a kid that has a higher ceiling than he’s already been performing. My expectations are big for him.

“Last week, the focus for our backers was quickness and brutality. This week it’s elusiveness and speed.”

The concern for Humbert is the sheer size the Mustangs play with on the outside. Jayden Pratt and Keondre DeShields, as well as Joe Chambers, offer big targets for Gallagher in the passing game.

“That’s what makes them dangerous. They have weapons,” Humbert said. “The best attribute is they have some athletic kids that Rod can get the ball to.”

DeShields has caught 10 balls this season, six of which have gone for touchdowns. Chambers has 161 yards receiving and Pratt is averaging 26 yards per catch. Tahji Hooper is averaging 20 yards per catch, as well.

“Rod has done a great job of making good decisions with the football all year. He’s putting the ball where it needs to go,” Kolesar said. “He’ll need to continue to do that this week. We have a lot of talented skill players, so we need to find ways to get them the ball in space.”

“I think if our DBs stay disciplined and play aggressive and physical, we’ll be OK,” Humbert said. “They have to stay in close contact and be physical with those guys on the outside.”

The keys to victory for the Mustangs, according to Kolesar, are to limit mistakes, good pursuit and tackling and being mentally tough.

Another would be limiting big plays. Belle Vernon quarterback Devin Whitlock is electric with the ball in his hands, and he touches it every play.

Belle Vernon’s other game-breaker in the backfield, running back Quinton Martin, announced Thursday via his Twitter account that he won’t play due to an injury suffered last week against Thomas Jefferson.

“You can’t stop a player like Devin Whitlock or Quinton Martin,” Kolesar said. “The goal is to slow them down. We focused this week on staying disciplined in our alignments and assignments, pursuing with maximum effort and tackling great when you make it to the ball.”

Whitlock has become a threat with his arm as well as his legs. He’s completing over 60% of his passes (34 of 51) for 444 yards and three TDs. He’s carried the ball 47 times for 532 yards with nine touchdowns – none more thrilling than his game-winning 40-yard run with four seconds to go against the Jaguars.

The top targets in the passing game are Evan Pohlot (11-151), Chase Ruokonen (9-113), Tanner Steeber (5-66) and tight end Cole Weightman (4-87).

“Belle Vernon is a team that plays hard on every single play. They do all of the little things right to make them successful,” Kolesar said. “Their players are always in the right position.”

The Mustangs have more to worry about than just Whitlock.

“If you watch the film of the TJ game, you see we’re more than Dev and Quinton,” Humbert said. “We give stickers for big performances, and Devin gave his to his line and the guys that helped him make that big run. It truly has been a team effort. All the guys are doing their job and just laying the foundation. The lines have been great and the guys we’ve plugged into other spots have done their job.

“We want to reach our ultimate goal. Last week is in the past, now LH is in front of us and we have to go through them.”

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