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High school football: Sahmir Hagans sparks St. Joseph’s Prep as Hawks defend Pennsylvania state title

The versatile junior has returned four kicks for touchdowns this season, including three in the last two games, as the Hawks have advanced to the PIAA Class 6A state semifinals.

St. Joseph's Prep's Sahmir Hagans, shown here in a 2018 state playoff game, has returned three kicks for touchdowns in the last two playoff games.
St. Joseph's Prep's Sahmir Hagans, shown here in a 2018 state playoff game, has returned three kicks for touchdowns in the last two playoff games.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Sometimes St. Joseph’s Prep tries to hide Sahmir Hagans in plain sight on kickoff returns.

Rather than station him deep near the end zone, they’ll move him closer to the kicker, near the guys whose job typically is to block for the return man.

“This way if they pooch it, they’ll pooch it to him,” St. Joseph’s Prep head coach Tim Roken said of the strategy of kicking the football high and short to avoid the deep return men.

That would not be an advisable approach for opposing teams, although sending the ball to Hagans when he’s deep for kickoffs and punts hasn’t proven to be such a great idea, either.

A 5-foot-9, 170-pound junior, Hagans is a dynamic wide receiver as well as a dependable part-time defensive back for St. Joseph’s Prep, which has advanced to the semifinals of the PIAA Class 6A state football tournament.

But Hagans’ biggest impact, especially in recent games, has been as a return man. He’s brought back four kicks for touchdowns this season, including three in the last two weeks.

St. Joseph’s Prep, the reigning state champion and winner of two of the last three state titles, meets District 7 champion Central Catholic of Pittsburgh Saturday at Altoona’s Mansion Park Stadium.

“The team has given me a great opportunity with great blocks setting me up,” Hagans said earlier this week before a St. Joseph’s workout at Temple’s practice field. “Special teams can be a big turning point in the game. We try to dominate on offense and defense and on special teams, too.”

Hagans is a top student with scholarship offers from prestigious academic schools such as Penn, Princeton and Duke as well as Bowling Green, Toledo, Temple, William & Mary and Arizona State.

Roken said Hagans takes the same serious, studious approach to football that he does to his schoolwork.

“I tell the kids we can tell how much film they are watching on Hudl,” Roken said of the video-sharing software that allows athletes and coaches to review game action of their own team as well as opponents. “He blows everybody away with how much film he watches. Like in the classroom, he has an attention to detail. He’s locked in when he steps between the lines.”

Hagans, who lives in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia, has caught 40 passes for 418 yards and six touchdowns, sharing the pie with fellow junior star wide receivers Marvin Harrison Jr. and Malik Cooper.

“He’s dynamic,” Roken said. “He’s a great route runner. He finds ball with his eyes. He’s explosive in space.”

With junior quarterback Kyle McCord sidelined with a knee injury, the Hawks have relied heavily on their running game, defense and special teams over the last two games.

A blocked punt by senior Anthony Rightley and a kickoff return for touchdown by Hagans were huge special-teams plays in the Prep’s 43-26 win over Northeast in the 6A city title game on Nov. 16. In a 45-24 victory over Nazareth Friday in the state quarterfinals, Hagans returned a pair of punts for scores.

Hagans also returned a kickoff for touchdown in a 31-25 loss to national power IMG Academy on Sept. 13 at Rutgers. He had kickoff returns for touchdowns against Father Judge and Archbishop Ryan called back by penalties, according to Roken.

“I love it,” Hagans said of returning kicks for touchdowns. "It’s just two people back there, you and your boy, and you just catch the ball, set up blocks, and you get to go.

“You go on the sidelines, and everyone is hyping you up, and you see how much momentum you give your team.”

McCord, an Ohio State recruit, still is regarded as “day-to-day,” according to Roken. That might mean another start for Cooper at quarterback and another game in which the Hawks will turn to their running game, defense and special teams to punch their ticket to the state final.

Hagans will be ready to make his mark on offense and defense and as a return man, even as the Hawks occasionally try to disguise his location.

“We’re in a great spot, one of just four teams left" in Class 6A, Hagans said. “We’re focused on staying together. We don’t focus on the title part. We focus on trying to stay together, whereever that leads us, and hopefully that’s to a state title.”