Senior spotlight: Fiery Polanco helped lead Pleasantville to state playoffs in his final season of basketball

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher The Pleasantville boys basketball team was 1-5 heading into a game against Mainland Regional on Jan. 14. Head coach Ken Johnson told his boys that if they didn’t wake up then, this would turn out to be a lost season. Senior guard Phil Polanco had waited a long time to play varsity basketball, and he didn’t want that to happen in his last chance to suit up for the Greyhounds. “We had a very slow start, but we didn’t put our heads down. Every game we lost was by only a few points. It’s not an excuse, but we were in the game,” Polanco said. “The little things were missing, boxing out and playing better team defense, but we figured that out and got on a roll.” The Greyhounds, sparked by the diminutive Polanco’s fire, attitude and confidence, beat Mainland 57-54 and won eight of their next 12 games to get over the .500 mark and earn the No. 9 seed in the South Jersey Group 2 playoffs. “I said to the seniors, ‘this is it. We have to win some games to get into the playoffs. You may never pick up a basketball in an organized fashion again.’ I didn’t want to wait 12 games to tell the seniors this is it,” Johnson said. “So we had that conversation before our sixth game and went on a little win streak. The seniors stepped up, Phil was one of them, and they realized this might be it for them. They learned from their early mistakes.” Polanco is no stranger to making mistakes. He missed his entire junior season because he didn’t have the grades to participate. He said he has learned from that experience and become more mature, and coach Johnson agrees. “He’s been doing very well in class and hasn’t gotten in trouble. That was the issue last year, and he’s learned from that because he knew he wanted to play (his senior year). He’s a fireball. He’s done well off the court, there haven’t been any issues with him maintaining his grades. He’s been through some things off the court that kept him from playing, but he’s learned from that and matured from that,” Johnson said. “He knew he definitely didn’t want to miss out on playing his senior year. So all the little things that kept him from being on the court, he took care of that this year. “All the things I’ve talked about and have been preaching about as a coach, he’s understanding that now. All his teachers have been telling me that he’s doing well this year. I saw his grades at the beginning of the season and it appeared that he understood he had to hit the books if he wanted to play. It was very early in the season that I knew he understood the whole situation and not just basketball.” Pleasantville guard Phil Polanco drives to the hoop against Cedar Creek's Jalil Burrell during the Greyhounds' playoff loss to the Pirates. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O'Sullivan) Pleasantville guard Phil Polanco drives to the hoop against Cedar Creek’s Jalil Burrell during the Greyhounds’ playoff loss to the Pirates. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O’Sullivan) “I didn’t play my junior year and I took that kind of hard, but I’ve come back this year strong. I messed up with my grades, but when I got myself together I couldn’t get on the team because it was too late. So I just worked on my game and waited for my senior year,” Polanco said. “It motivated me. I came out hungry. I wasn’t in the starting lineup (in preseason) but I just came out and showed coach Johnson what I could do.” Polanco said he came into this season knowing that, as a senior, younger players were going to be looking at him to set the example of how to conduct themselves on and off the court. And a year older and wiser, he has been ready to accept that challenge. “When I couldn’t play last year I would go to the games and watch the team, and that just killed me. So I said, ‘next year I’m going to get myself together, I’m going to start from scratch,'” Polanco said. “I knew I had to become a leader. I feel like I’m more mature and I feel very good about myself. I’m a captain on the team, so I have to be a picture for the younger guys. Whatever I do, the younger players are going to do. The freshmen, some of the JV players, they look up to me, so I have to be on the right path.” Polanco stands just 5-foot-5, but plays with a ferocity of someone much bigger. Johnson said the toughness he brings to the court every day is something that has inspired his team, and is a big reason the Greyhounds are playoff-bound. “He’s tough. I always call him pound-for-pound the toughest kid I have on the team. He’s afraid of nobody and plays on the edge, which is good. He hasn’t crossed over yet and gotten a tech (technical foul). He plays hard for me and gives me everything he has,” Johnson said. “He knows he’s small, but he’s going to go out there and give it everything he has. He talks a little junk out there sometimes, but that keeps his confidence up and it really helps the team. The team looks for him to lead them, they look for his fire and his toughness. Most of my players are pretty quiet, but Phil has never been quiet, that’s for sure.” “I hustle a lot. I’m the type of dude who will guard the best player on the court, and I want that matchup. I want to work,” Polanco said. “All my life I have been doubted because I am so small, but I have heart. I have the eye of the tiger. That’s just the way I am.” Johnson said he doesn’t mind Polanco playing with a little bit of swagger. Trying to clamp down on that would be counter-productive for a player such as Polanco. “Most of it is getting himself fired up and the team fired up. Every once in a while he’ll talk in an opponent’s ear, too, but he hasn’t gotten a tech yet, so I’m OK with it. I have a lot of guys who go out there and do the work, he just does the work and brings a little noise with it,” Johnson said. Johnson said that a dream of Polanco’s always has been to compete at the Battle by the Bay against nemesis Atlantic City. Polanco was able to fulfill that dream this season, and he and the Greyhounds came out on fire in the first quarter before the Vikings took command and ran away with a blowout victory. Johnson said his team didn’t follow the game plan, but he understands because that game is so emotionally charged, so he couldn’t get on them too bad about their performance. “He told me the other day he’s always dreamed of playing in the Battle by the Bay and all that stuff. He’s really done a good job of picking up the offense and running it. He doesn’t score a lot of points, which isn’t something I’m looking for from him, but he definitely runs the offense and gets everybody in place. He takes charges, gets rebounds. He will do whatever it takes to win the game, that’s his attitude. He’ll go for rebounds against bigger guys, he’s diving on the ground for loose balls. He doesn’t back down from anybody,” Johnson said. “He played good in the first quarter, but it wasn’t within our game plan, and the rest of the game he didn’t do well and we didn’t do well as a team. He admitted he didn’t follow the game plan and he let the event take over. He understood what he didn’t do right in that game and he’s basically corrected it. “I tell a lot of them for that game, I’m going to lose a lot of them mentally because they turn it into more than just a game. It’s an event, it’s personal. Unfortunately he was one of the victims of that, but he readily admitted it. But he’s been playing good ball ever since. That was a dream of his, to play in the Battle by the Bay, since he was in eighth grade. He got his dream out of the way and since then he’s been playing good ball.” Johnson said he is glad that Polanco has learned from his past mistakes, and believes his point guard is truly understanding that he has earned a great opportunity by re-dedicating himself in the classroom. “We say to them that in four years this is all going to be over, and you never forget these times in high school,” Johnson said. “You’ll remember this forever, and it goes by quicker than you think so you don’t want to miss any of it.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan:; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]


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