The new, and smallest, kid on the basketball block

Posted: March 06, 2013

It's that time of the boys' basketball season when only select teams are still playing.

Chester, Lower Merion, Neumann-Goretti, Upper Moreland, Gospel of Grace Christian, Imhotep Charter . . .

Never heard of Gospel of Grace Christian?

Join the club.

"No one knows us," coach Mario Berrios said.

Gospel of Grace is the surprise entry in the PIAA state tournament, which will begin this weekend. The Cheltenham school qualified in just its second season as a PIAA member.

The Saints made the field by advancing to the District 1 Class A final last week and will open against Math, Civics & Sciences at 6 p.m. Friday at Bonner-Prendergast.

They reached states despite having the smallest enrollment of any District 1 school with a boys' basketball program.

Only 21 students, including 14 boys, are in the ninth through 12th grades at Gospel of Grace. Half of those boys play for the basketball team.

"We're underdogs," said Berrios, a 23-year-old graduate of the school in his fourth season as coach.

"That's how I look at it. I just tell my boys every game, 'One game at a time, and go out there and put the school on the map.' "

The pre-kindergarten-through-12th-grade school was founded in 1997 and began a basketball program about four years later, Berrios said. He played point guard for the team when it was in the Delaware Valley Christian Athletic Conference. After he became coach, Gospel of Grace, seeking better competition, applied for PIAA membership.

As an independent team - "It's hard to get into a league since we only have one sport," Berrios said - the Saints played their first season in the PIAA last year and thought they should have qualified for the district tournament.

They fell short, though, and this season, to increase their chances, Berrios pumped up the schedule. He added games against bigger schools, including Coatesville (65-48 loss), Downingtown West (82-74 win), Archbishop Carroll (56-24 loss), and Communications Tech (70-64 loss).

"They lace up their sneakers the same as us. We don't look at them as they're better than us," said the Saints' Shaquan Turk, a 6-foot-4 senior swingman being recruited by Division III schools.

Gospel of Grace practices and plays home games at Houseman Recreation Center in Philadelphia, and has some impressive talent for a 14-boy high school.

The Saints (14-9) run the floor well, led by Turk and two guards - 5-11 senior Christian Wims and 6-0 junior Eric Williams - who can man the point and drive the lane.

Berrios, a volunteer coach who makes his living installing floors, said he has never recruited players to Gospel of Grace.

"My starting five, besides one kid, I've had since they were in the eighth grade," he said. "They just came up, and we kept training them. They'll bring their friends to the school, or they talk about the school, and that's how we've gotten kids to just come in."

The Saints lack size, with the tallest player being 6-5, and obviously depth, with a roster of just seven.

Against Church Farm in a 52-33 loss in the district final at Villanova, they were outmanned - the Griffins dressed 12 players - especially when Turk got hurt and missed the last three quarters. Turk was hit on the chin while trying to block a shot and sat out with a possible concussion. The Saints were leading before the injury.

Berrios will lose four seniors from this season's team. That will leave three returning players.

But he said that two boys at the school who didn't play this year might join the team next season and that, after the Saints defeated Delco Christian in the district semifinals to secure a state berth, two players from other teams called to express interest in transferring.

Slowly but surely, people are finding out about the program.

"I think it's crazy how we can have 21 students and have as good of a basketball team as we have," Berrios said. "And competing with schools, huge public schools and other schools, we've just been able to compete with everybody."

Contact Lou Rabito at 215-854-2916 or

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