BEAVER, Pa. — When the Laurel Highlands football team met in January, just about 10 months ago, the Mustangs were coming off a 2-5 season. However, the three goals written on the whiteboard, the expectations for the upcoming season, were firm. A winning season, a playoff appearance and a playoff win.
That’s typically the goal of a high school football team, but when the last playoff appearance was five years ago, the last winning season was 25 years ago and the last playoff win didn’t exist, those are lofty goals. With star junior Rodney Gallagher born nearly a decade after the last winning season, some would say a winning season was long overdue.
Laurel Highlands head coach Richard Kolesar would say his team earned the victory, a hard-fought, come-from-behind 28-27 victory over Beaver Area at Pat Tarquinio Field Friday night in freezing weather, to make school history.
“We checked those three boxes, so now it’s gravy at this point,” Kolesar said. “Let’s keep it rolling.”
A date with No. 2 seed Aliquippa this Friday looms large, but the monumental milestone that Laurel Highlands achieved isn’t lost on anyone.
“I just want to bring history to this school,” Gallagher said. “… Football, I never forgot about that. I knew this team was special since the youth league days when my dad coached, so it’s literally the same kids and we just wanted to win so bad. With [Hooper] in our back pocket for us, we’re just going to continue to keep working.”
However, no matter how special a team is, the results on the field are paramount. And Beaver gave Laurel Highlands all they could and then some — and it was almost too much.
Beaver took a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter, executing a perfect game plan in containing Gallagher offensively and forcing Laurel Highland into difficult possessions. The Bobcats dominated the field position battle, used a tandem of senior quarterback Wyatt Ringer and senior running back Jake Hilton to batter the Mustangs’ defense, and ran out to a two-score lead.
If the deficit felt like too much, Laurel Highlands didn’t show it. And Kolesar’s motto rang true as the Mustangs began to fight back.
“Our motto all year has been: next play,” Kolesar said. “Move onto the next play. We got down early, some stupid penalties put ourselves behind the ball on offense. We knew we were capable, the kids started battling, made our adjustments on defense — we started slowing them down — and we got it back to an even game. And we knew at that point that we just needed to finish.”
Touchdowns from Gallagher and senior running back TJ Hooper leveled the score at the half, a blocked field goal denying Laurel Highlands the chance to take a halftime lead. And Beaver capitalized in the second half, taking leads of 21-14 and 27-21 — the final lead coming with just over two minutes remaining in the contest off a Mustangs’ fumble turned into a long touchdown gallop from Hilton.
The momentum swing continued a trend of Beaver managing to stay just a step ahead of Laurel Highlands, allowing the Mustangs to almost get back into the game before pulling away. If the turnover was back-breaking, the ensuing touchdown was the nail in the coffin. Or, at least it would’ve been.
“There’s a difference of this team this year,” Gallagher said. “Probably like my freshman year, my sophomore year, we would’ve just quit right there. But with this team, everybody wants to win, so everybody’s gonna continue to fight until that clock hits four zeros. We just kept fighting, and we knew we were going to win that game after they missed that field goal. We knew we had a chance up there, and we just kept on fighting.”
With just about two minutes on the clock, Gallagher led a drive that needed a touchdown — and converted point-after attempt — to win. A wild scramble drill from Gallagher, evading half the Bobcats’ defense, to secure enough time to throw a prayer to senior wide receiver Jayden Pratt — who soared into the air and brought it down to move the chains.
With timing slipping away, a handoff to Hooper with under a minute remaining wound up being the final dagger. Hooper took the handoff, juked a couple of would-be tacklers and dashed into the end zone for the winning score — his third touchdown of the night.
“I was just thinking, like, ‘We really needed it,'” Hooper said. “Couldn’t have did it without my teammates, o-line blocking.”
“I can’t even explain it,” Gallagher said. “We all know what type of dawg [Hooper] is. I mean, just him finally coming back home, we all grew up with each other, he grew up with me, and he went to Texas, but he finally came back home for his senior year.”
Hooper stepped up, finally given a chance with multiple players out and his own immersion in the offense complete after transferring back from Texas over the summer, and he was a vital part of the biggest win in team history. It was, after all, a win for not just Laurel Highlands, but the entire Uniontown community.
“It’s great,” Gallagher said. “We’ve been working so hard, I’m so proud of this team, and we just appreciate coach Kolesar putting all his time into us even though he’s a school teacher. So him just putting the rest of his time after being a school teacher to help us win is just great, and I appreciate my whole team just by helping me become a better player. And [Hooper] especially tonight.”
Even with chants of “Four star for nothing!” and “Overrated” ringing out around the stadium, mainly a boisterous Beaver student section, Gallagher said the noise didn’t get in his head. He actually enjoyed it.
“I heard all them over there, hatin’,” Gallagher laughed. “It makes me play better, so I like it, and I love playing on the road. It just makes me want to play harder, makes my team want to play harder and we love being the underdog every single week.”
With a road game against Aliquippa next Friday, Gallagher and the Laurel Highlands will certainly be underdogs again — and there’s a chance he’ll hear it all in the Quips’ legendary Pit.
“Can’t get better than that,” Gallagher said. “In the three losses we had, those are all good teams. We love to play competition, it only gets us better, and going and playing in their stadium is legendary in the WPIAL, so I cannot wait to play there.”
The prep for Aliquippa begins immediately, well, Sunday or Monday. Kolesar saw plenty of positives and negatives against Beaver, and it all starts in the film room to immediately jump into Aliquippa. However, for at least one night, Laurel Highlands gets to celebrate the first playoff win in school history. And it starts on the bus ride back home.
“We always sing,” Gallagher said. “I just didn’t want to go home crying for two hours. That was just something we also talked about. That’s how bad we really wanted to win, and just making history again, we just wanted to make sure that bus ride home wasn’t going to be a very long one and upset about what we could’ve done better in the game.”