Gio Morales never envisioned being able to head for a Division II college, California (Pa.), as a recruited baseball player.

Wait, let's back up.

He never pictured himself earning a spot as St. Joseph's Prep's centerfielder and leadoff hitter.

Wait, let's back up some more.

"I never even thought I'd be at the Prep," he said, laughing.

Morales, a 5-5, 135-pound senior, is often the Hawks' heart. On occasions when he's not, he's their soul. He's loved by his teammates and coaches - by the whole school community, actually - and when he headed for the Prep out of St. Veronica School, in North Philly, who could have predicted that?

"When you're coming from a place that's different from where most of the people you're going to be around are coming from, you're not sure how it's going to work," said Morales, who lives near 5th and Hunting Park. "But as soon as I got to the Prep, I noticed that everybody was open-minded. They didn't care about the color of my skin, or where I came from. That helped a lot.

"Everything that has happened for me . . . I have so many people to thank for putting their trust in me. My coaches, parents, teachers, teammates. I've been privileged, and honored."

Morales spoke last night at Campbell's Field, in Camden, after the Prep bested Central, 11-1, in six innings, to capture the Class AAAA City Title and clinch a home game in Monday's opening round of the state playoffs (details TBA). Central will also advance.

The victory capped 40-3 domination for the Catholic League in the tripleheader, as Ss. Neumann-Goretti flattened Franklin Towne Charter, 17-1, in four innings, in AAA, and Kennedy-Kenrick needed five frames to dispatch Esperanza Charter, 12-1, in AA.

Esperanza is right near Morales' house. But while finishing atop his class at St. Veronica, he always maintained big-picture thoughts. He applied to La Salle and Roman Catholic in addition to the Prep and was all set to attend Roman. Even paid a deposit.

"But when I visited, I decided, 'This isn't really me,' " he said. "I attended a baseball showcase at the Prep and really had fun. Everybody was so nice. I spoke to coach [Chris Rupertus] and he said he'd love to have me. It's good to be welcomed somewhere. And I knew coming here would be best for my life."

Did someone say life? Morales provides that nonstop.

"I'm not a captain, but I'm always trying to give us positive energy," he said. "Sometimes I feel we're dead on the bench. That we need that extra pick-up. I do all that I can to keep my teammates, whether they're playing or not, into the game."

If someone ever starts a Gio Morales Fan Club, Rupertus will have no problem holding every office.

"He's an incredibly upbeat, positive kid," the coach said. "Our team feeds off that. If we're down, he's chirping and getting us up. If we get up on a team, he's still chirping. 'Let's finish them!'

"But you know how he speaks the loudest? With his play. He's surprisingly strong, has a great arm and can hit balls into the gap. And if a fielder looks the wrong way, he's going to take an extra base. Because he's a jackrabbit. The kid is loved."

The Prep's five-run fourth was not exactly rockets-red-glare material. It made the most of seven walks and only the second of two hits, Ray Toto's two-run single, drove someone home. The two runs in the fifth were unearned. The sixth went single by Morales, RBI double by Greg "Buddy'' Brooks, RBI single by Toto, double by Jeff Lynch, game-ending RBI single by Perry Russom.

Kevin Gillen pitched the first five innings for Prep, allowing two hits and fanning eight. Pat Carbone worked a 1-2-3 sixth.

Central's run, which fashioned a 1-0 lead in the third, resulted from an error, Ian Lewis' steal of second and Mike Cavallaro's single.

"There was no sense of panic when they had us down," Morales said. "We've been resilient all year."

Long range, Morales hopes to become an FBI agent solving white-collar crimes.

"I think I'd love tracking down people,'' he said. "I know it probably wouldn't be as exciting as they make it look in movies, but that stuff has always fascinated me."

Ask the folks at the Prep. Morales has created more than a little wonderment himself. *