Laurel Highlands scored three touchdowns of over 70 yards but it was its defense that came up big twice in the final seconds in the Mustangs’ thrilling 34-33 victory over Trinity on Friday night.
Sophomore star Rodney Gallagher had a hand in all five LH touchdowns, throwing for two scores, rushing for another, and returning two interceptions a combined 147 yards for two more TDs in the Big Eight Conference battle at Mustang Field.
Gallagher’s second interception return, a spectacular, weaving run of 72 yards in which he broke several tackles, gave the Mustangs a 34-20 lead with 9:38 left in the game.
“He put on a show tonight,” Laurel Highlands coach Rich Kolesar said.
Trinity wasn’t done yet.
A 4-yard touchdown run by Tyson Brophy, the second of the game for the 6-foot-2, 265-pound senior who usually plays right guard for the Hillers, and Dante Derubbo’s extra point cut the gap to 34-27.
Trinity’s defense held and the offense drove down field and scored again on quarterback Connor Roberts’ 7-yard run to pull within 34-33 with 42.4 seconds remaining.
Hillers coach Jon Miller opted for a 2-point conversion attempt and put the ball in the hands of Brophy again but this time the Mustangs defense held its ground and stopped the hulking runner a yard short of the goal line.
“They put in their big kid that had already run for two touchdowns,” Kolesar said. “We knew exactly what was coming. Our theme this week is we’ve got to learn to finish and that’s exactly what we did on that play. It was every hat on the ball driving and the kid bounced it outside and it was just a total team effort to get him down.”
Trinity still had life when Jeremy Sikora’s onside kick was recovered by Micah Finley at the LH 48. Again, the Mustangs defense held the fort.
After a five-yard Trinity penalty and an incomplete pass, Roberts was sacked and then spiked the ball to kill the clock. Roberts’ fourth-down pass was broken up and Laurel Highlands had the victory.
Gallagher completed 7of 18 passes for 156 yards, including an 80-yard TD strike to Demonte Kiss and a 2-yard scoring toss to Jayden Pratt in the third quarter to break a 14-14 tie and help LH build a 27-14 advantage.
“Rodney had the best game of his high school career so far,” Kolesar said. “Throwing, running, two pick-sixes. He played unbelievable.”
Finley’s 46-yard touchdown run later in the third quarter made it 27-20 with Derubbo missing his second extra point of the night. That set the stage for the exhilarating finish.
“It was a great game,” said Kolesar, whose team was coming off a 35-20 loss at McKeesport, which upset Thomas Jefferson, 20-14, Friday night.
Trinity took a 6-0 lead on Brophy’s first TD run from 6-yards out to open the scoring in the first quarter.
Gallagher answered with a 43-yard touchdown run and Zachary Layton’s extra point put LH up 7-6.
Gallagher ran the read-option effectively against the Hillers in rushing 19 times for 80 yards.
Trinity went back on top, 14-7, on Peyton Thompson’s 23-yard touchdown run followed by a 2-point conversion pass by Roberts to Kaden Kolson in the second quarter.
The Mustangs’ tied it at 14-14 when Gallagher came up with his first interception return for a touchdown, this one for 75 yards, and the score remained deadlocked at halftime.
Trinity out-gained Laurel Highlands, 468 yards to 246 but the Mustangs more than made up the difference with Gallagher’s big plays.
Roberts completed 16 of 33 passes for 147 yards but was intercepted four times. Finley rolled up 235 yards on the ground on 25 carries and had seven receptions for 66 yards.
Christian Burchick had three receptions for 43 yards and Kiss had two catches for 90 yards for the Mustangs. Kiss also contributed defensively with an interception and a fumble recovery. Terrance Thomas-Brown also picked off a pass for LH.
Laurel Highlands has one game remaining on its schedule, a non-conference match-up against Fayette County rival Connellsville at Falcons Stadium next Friday.
Kolesar has seen his team make strides as the season has progressed.
“We’re starting to reap the rewards from all the hard work,” Kolesar said. “We started 11 kids who were in their first year. You’re not going to be a great team early when you start that many kids that are new to high school football. But we’ve been working and improving all year.
“Last week we played a two-score game with McKeesport who went out and beat TJ tonight, and then we win a close game against Trinity that very closely resembled last year’s game against them (a 28-25 loss) when we didn’t know how to finish. So I think you’re starting to see a change in the program.
“We’re working to build something great here.”