By Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
(Ed. Note: This story is part of CoBL’s “Prepping for Preps” series, which will take a look at many of the top high school programs in the region as part of our 2022-23 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed thus far can be found here.)
Kyle Sample grew up watching Philadelphia Public League basketball.
From an early age, his uncle took him to games at places like the Convention Center and the Spectrum to see matchups between the city’s best like Simon Gratz, Strawberry Mansion and Franklin Learning Center.
Sample’s Cristo Rey boys basketball program isn’t part of The Pub, but it is located in the heart of Philadelphia — at 17th and Allegheny in North Philly to be exact.
The first-year head coach, who previously helped the program grow as the school’s athletic director, is trying to mold his team into the likeness of the city powerhouse programs he grew up watching.
“When I look back at building a Philadelphia program, which is a lot different from building a Harriton, it’s like, ‘What identity do you want to have? What culture do you want to have?’,” Sample said. “One of my favorite coaches of all time is Bill Ellerbe and what he did at Gratz and what they did as a team defensively and how they played together and how he had full command of his team and was physical and would play anybody everywhere.”
Cristo Rey senior Josh Wyche (Lafayette) became the program's first Division I recruit earlier this fall. (Photo: Owen McCue/CoBL)
Sample coached at Harriton High School in the Central League for three seasons before taking the athletic director position at Cristo Rey in 2020. He also is a part of the K-Low Elite AAU program.
The school itself is in its 10th year, opening in 2012 and the athletic programs are even younger. Sample’s mission when he took over was to match the academic success of the students at Cristo Rey with athletic success.
At such a young program, there really isn’t a barometer for success, but after a 3-10 campaign in 2021-22, the Blue Pride feel ready to take the program forward this season.
“It’s just fun being able to work,” said senior Josh Wyche, who started his career at Harriton before following Sample to Cristo Rey. “We don’t really have a standard, but we know what we want to be. It’s not pressure, but whatever we do is what we gonna do and we’re going to go out there and play hard.”
Wyche became the program’s first Division I recruit this fall when he committed to play at Lafayette. It was a significant moment not just for Wyche but the young Cristo Rey program.
Along with Wyche, a 6-8 wing/guard who missed a significant portion of last season due to injury, the Blue Pride return juniors Amari Dow, Josh Patterson and Lamar Lovett to the lineup.
Dow, a 6-3 lefty guard, was an All-Penn-Jersey League selection last season, leading the team at 17 points per game. Sample calls Patterson, a 6-1 point/combo guard, his team’s Rajon Rondo. Lovett is a 6-foot guard who can fill it up as well.
The Blue Pride add some talented newcomers to the program as well. Sophomores Amir Nelson and Devin Booker transferred from Frankford and Imhotep, respectively. Nelson is another scrappy guard that fits well with the way Sample wants his team to play. Booker, a 6-5 wing/guard, could be in line to be the next Division I recruit at Cristo Rey after Wyche. The long and athletic wing is impactful at both ends of the court.
Sample also mentioned ‘fearless’ freshman guard Tyler Tolbert as another important piece for the Blue Pride.
“Offensively, we’re going to be fun to watch,” Sample said. “We want to play fast. We want to get up and down the court. We want to score in transition. We want to try and score within 12 to 20 seconds. We don’t want to hold the ball. We don’t want to pass up open shots. We’re going to take a lot of threes. We’re going to attack the paint and play down hill and play through our guys who give us the best option to score.”
Cristo Rey junior Amari Dow was the team's leading scorer last season at 17 ppg. (Photo: Chad Graham/CoBL)
On defense, Sample wants his athletic team to play with an edge.
“Very physical, very gritty, muck some games up,” Sample said. “See if teams are willing to get down and dirty with us. Of course we’re going to play and be respectable to our opponent and play with sportsmanship and respect the game and represent our school the right way.
“But yeah, we’re definitely going out there to be the bad boys.We’re getting up and down, be physical and make teams work. No matter what the score reads at the end of the game, no matter if we win or lose, we want everyone we play this year to say Cristo Rey is serious. That was a good game. That team made us work.”
With Wyche going down with a fractured ankle three games into the season, the Blue Pride were rarely at full strength in 2021-22. Wyche returned late in the season but still wasn’t at 100 percent when his team lost 61-56 in overtime to eventual champion Solebury School in last season’s Penn-Jersey playoffs.
“That was my second game back, so I didn’t feel right playing,” Wyche said. “But we lost in overtime. We were up the whole game and then they hit a buzzer beater and we lost in overtime and they won the championship by two. I think we definitely could have won.”
The Blue Pride certainly have their eyes in taking home their first conference title this season. In previous years, the Penn-Jersey playoffs marked the end of the road.
However, for the first time in its program history, Cristo Rey could have the opportunity to play in the Pennsylvania Independent School Athletic Association tournament this season.
Cristo Rey sophomore Devin Booker will be a big addition this season. (Photo: Chad Graham/CoBL)
The Blue Pride became a PAISAA member in May and now have another goal to shoot for as they compete with some of the established local prep powers for the first time.
“Our school has never really had the chance to cheer on a team in a state-playoff environment, so we’re bringing North Philadelphia to whoever’s campus we’re invited to play at for a state playoff game, so we’re excited,” Sample said.
The Blue Pride made a little noise this offseason, reaching the Post & Pivot Fall League championship game and winning matchups with the Catholic League’s Bonner-Prendergast and Archbishop Carroll.
Cristo Rey has matchups with George School, Haverford School, Malvern Prep, Friends’ Central and Shipley School and others to see where it stands before facing the likes of Solebury, Life Center Academy and Phelps School in league play.
It’s unlikely the Blue Pride will enter the PAISAA tournament — won by Westtown the past two seasons (2019-20 and 2021-22) — but Wyche hopes they can make some noise.
“I’m not going to put the pressure of winning states on us because it’s our first year of being in it but just being able to make a run in states,” Wyche said of his goal. “I want to knock out somebody that everybody thinks we’re going to lose to. I need to knock them off for sure. And I just want to have a successful season where this is a stepping stone for Cristo Rey.”
Sample believes he has a special group of kids, not just on his team but at the school. He hopes his program can represent them at a high level this season and in the years to come.
“We’re in the heart of North Philly. That says a lot about us,” Sample said. “The kids that we have at our school, not only athletes, we’re a tough culture of kids who go through a lot of adversity, kids who have been through challenges and look for challenges, look to accept the challenge.
"High academic kids that want to make something of themselves that really are invested in their academics and their future and their professionalism. At Cristo Rey our mission stands on that. We kind of want to align our athletics to make sure we’re right on par and parallel with our mission.”