Malik Hartford hit against St. Xavier: OHSAA not settling any targeting

St. Xavier’s junior wide receiver Andrew Weber may have had the catch of the year in the dying seconds of their 16-13 loss to the Lakota West High School Football Firebirds on Aug. 19.

That’s because the 5-foot-10, 155-pound junior latched on to the ball after being equalized by 6-foot-3, 180-pound Lakota West safety Malik Hartford, who got involved in the State of Ohio. Within seconds, the crowd erupted and Hartford’s helmet flew off as the referees tossed yellow flags into midfield.

On the spot, the referees sent off Hartford, who picked up his mouthpiece and left the field, for targeting. According to the Ohio High School Athletic Association, forcing contact with an arm, shoulder, or helmet on an opponent above the shoulders is a personal foul for targeting. High school rules are different from college and pro standards when it comes to illegal hitting.

Other than an OHSAA championship game, there are no video replays in high school football. However, OHSAA may do a video review after the contest. The review came midweek and Hartford was back on the field for the Firebirds’ 49-6 victory over Lakota East.

“What we know for certain is that this did not meet the definition of targeting,” OHSAA Director of Arbitration Beau Rugg said by email Sunday. “However, the receiver could be considered defenseless and it was a foul less than 9-4-3g in the personal foul zone.”

The penalty was reduced to an ejection for that game, which was actually 13 seconds. Had the same hit occurred in the first quarter, he would have been out of the game for the entire duration, but would still have been eligible to play Lakota East based on OHSAA review.

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“I’m glad he got knocked down,” Hartford said. “I’m glad the receiver was OK. He made a great catch. It was a great hit, it was just good football all around. I’m really happy that I got to play in that rivalry game . It was crazy and fun.”

Hartford and Lakota West coach Tom Bolden said OHSAA will use the video to instruct umpires in the future on what is and isn’t targeted.

Either way, fans and staff at St. Xavier were furious. On the Lakota West side, the “oohs and ahs” of a fireworks display were evident. Comparisons were quickly sought overnight by young fans unfamiliar with Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, Thom Darden or Jack Tatum. Tatum, by the way, was an Ohio State Buckeye.

There were no major hits from No. 1 on Lakota West’s roster in Week 2, but he caught a pair of passes as a receiver on offense.

After the rivalry victory, Hartford spoke about the week, the success and the future. That future includes an upcoming game visit from Ohio State on Saturday when they host Notre Dame. Hartford may be recognized as “that guy” around Ohio Stadium after snippets of his hit hit the internet like wildfire.

“It just shows a snippet of how we play here,” Hartford said. “We play aggressive football. The referees did the right thing. They reviewed it. OHSAA reviewed it.”

“I said to the officials, ‘Guys, I got it!'” Bolden said. “It happened so fast, there was so much emotion and that kind of stuff. On a Saturday (in college) they could radio each other and sort it all out right away. I understand where they’re from. were coming, but it ended up being legal. What’s kind of lost in all of this is the kid (St. Xavier’s Weber) who held the ball!”

Bolden spoke to Weber after the opener’s hit, but also defended his player.

“There’s a reason he’s going to Ohio State,” he said. “It was fast. It was physical. It was one of those hits. It got six million views and comments, left and right. That’s the power of social media, I guess. “

Off the field, Bolden describes Hartford as a bright, laid-back student.

“He’s just different when he steps onto the pitch, which is great!” said Bolden.

The Firebirds’ hopes for an undefeated season continue Friday night when they visit the Sycamore Aviators. The star-studded secondary has been tested by St. Xavier senior Jamaal Sharp (five catches for 153 yards in week one) and expects more teams to try.

Lakota West has a defensive backfield with five Division I offers. They are, from left, Taebron juniors Bennie-Powell and Bukari Miles, seniors Josh Fussel, Malik Hartford and Ben Minich.

North West clerk Josh Fussel and Notre Dame clerk Ben Minich were also used on offense. Junior Taebron Bennie-Powell had a scoop and scored a punt blocked by Minich against Lakota East. Another promising junior, Bukari Miles is out for the season with a torn ACL but is already recovering quickly for a senior season in 2023 when he teams up with fellow defensive back Drew Minich and hard-hitting linebacker Jacob Asbeck.

“There are more guys who are going to continue to shine throughout the year,” Hartford said. “Guys are stepping up. That’s what we need in our team. The change from this year to last year is that we’re faster. We’re not as big, but we’re fast. I hope my boy Bukari gets better. He will flourish next season for sure.”

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