UNIONTOWN, Pa. – Nobody has had a better view of Rodney Gallagher’s football career at Laurel Highlands High School than Rich Kolesar.
Kolesar has served as the Mustangs’ head football coach since 2019, which was the same year a freshman phenom entered LHHS. Together they’ve taken Western Pennsylvania by storm.
A 6-foot, 180-pound senior-to-be at Laurel Highlands, where he has thrived as a receiver, quarterback, defensive back and kick returner, Gallagher recently committed to West Virginia. The four-star recruit still has his senior high school year in front of him and won’t be able to sign his National Letter of Intent with WVU until Dec. 14, but the excitement of his arrival at Mountaineer Field in 2023 is already high.
Over the years, Laurel Highlands has often put excellent basketball teams on the court. Led by the likes of former Mountaineer All-American Wil Robinson as well as Gus Gerard, who played at the University of Virginia and in the ABA and NBA, the Mustangs have long been strong in basketball. With Gallagher powering LH to a pair of WPIAL championships in the past three years, the program has endured only one losing season in the last decade.
Football has been another story, though.
Laurel Highlands didn’t manage a single winning season on the gridiron in a 20-year span from 2001-20, and its high-water mark in that time were a pair of 5-5 finishes.
With Gallagher on the field and Kolesar on the sidelines, the building process started slowly, as LH was 2-8 in 2019 and 2-5 in the Covid-shortened 2020 season. But last year the Mustangs finally enjoyed football success, posting an 8-4 record and winning a WPIAL playoff game for the first time in the school’s 55-year history – a 28-27 victory at Beaver.
Used by Kolesar last year as a quarterback, defensive back and kick returner, Gallagher passed for 1,365 yards and rushed for another 1,130 in ’21.
“He’s amazing,” said Kolesar of his star pupil, who has been a member of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’sFab 5 (basketball) and Fab 22 (football) teams. “People don’t understand how talented he is. He’s special with the ball in his hands. There’s nothing he can’t do.”
Gallagher’s development into an elite athlete wasn’t a huge surprise. His father and mother each were excellent basketball players in their younger days, and Rodney followed in their path. He’s still outstanding on the hardwood, earning all-state honors for three consecutive years. This past season he averaged 18.6 points and 4.0 rebounds per game in leading Laurel Highlands to a 27-1 record.
During his freshman year of high school, some recruiting services ranked Gallagher as the nation’s best basketball prospect in his class. In time, though, his football skills grew but his height didn’t, and it became the gridiron that seemed his best avenue to the highest level.
A 2006 graduate of Laurel Highlands who has served as a teacher in the area for the past 15 years, Kolesar was well aware of Gallagher’s football potential before his freshman season.
“I’m from here, so I knew about him as he was coming through the youth leagues. He was always special in the youth leagues and in middle school,” said Kolesar, who is a Geneva (Pa.) College graduate, where he was a National Christian College Athletic Association All-American defensive back. “We weren’t sure about how quickly he would make the jump as he came into his freshman year, but we started going to some seven-on-sevens that summer and he was making unbelievable plays. Once we got into his freshman season, we knew right then that he was going to be a special player.”
Gallagher, who recently was clocked at 4.12 in the shuttle and recorded a 116-inch broad jump (both of which would have equalled the top marks at WVU’s pro day this past spring), is versatile enough to play a multitude of positions in high school.
After playing him at receiver as a freshman, Kolesar used Gallagher at quarterback on offense the past two seasons.
“The main thing for him is he wants to win,” explained the coach. “He’ll play anywhere in order to help a team win.”
Kolesar hopes to move Gallagher back to receiver this fall. He’s ticketed to play that position at WVU as well.
“He’s a slot receiver,” said Kolesar of Gallagher’s future. “He’s going to find ways to get open, and once he gets the ball in his hands, he can go to the house anytime.”
Plenty of major college football programs identified Gallagher’s potential. He had scholarship offers from dozens of FBS schools and eventually narrowed his list to eight (West Virginia, Notre Dame, Penn State, Virginia Tech, Pitt, Oregon, Texas and Oklahoma State) before ultimately committing to WVU, which is less than a 25-minute drive from his Uniontown, Pennsylvania, home.
“When his recruitment started out, it was fun, but then it got to be work,” admitted Kolesar. “We did the best we could for him, and I think he made a great decision.”
The public announcement of that decision came on May 25 during a press conference at the Laurel Highlands gym.
“He saw recently there was one strong suitor that he really wanted to go to,” explained Kolesar of Gallagher’s choice of WVU. “There were other ones who were great, but he found the right fit, and I’m happy for him.”
Gallagher still has another year to be a Mustang, where he’s become a favorite son for the entire Uniontown area.
“He’s the heart of the community,” stated Kolesar. “Everyone recognizes him because of his success in both basketball and football. He’s been a great inspiration to the kids in this community. He loves that part of it. He tells them, ‘I did it, you can, too.’”