Alex Polanco was trying too hard to hit a home run.
"Every time, I'm trying to hit a home run," Polanco said the other day, after Pennsauken's surprising baseball team stunned perennial power Shawnee by a 7-4 score and seized first place in the Olympic Conference Patriot Division. "That's not good. I need to try to hit a line drive."
Polanco can be excused for swinging for the fences. It's that extra effort that has transformed him as an athlete, student, and young man.
A strapping senior and South Jersey's leader in home runs, he barely resembles the skinny, scared, and heartsick freshman who came to Pennsauken from the Dominican Republic in 2008, after the death of his mother.
Polanco said he is driven to play well, improve his schoolwork, and further his education to honor his late mother, Rossana, who died of a heart attack when he was 14.
"After my mom died, my life changed," said Polanco, the Indians' third baseman and cleanup hitter. "I wasn't good when I was a kid. But now I want to do the best I can in everything. I want to be a better person every day."
Pennsauken is 11-1 for various reasons, from solid starting pitching by seniors Kyle Hohwald and Ryan Levito to strong work at the plate and in the field from seniors Josh Rodgers, Anthony Sweet, and Nick Smyth, among others.
But Polanco's production at the plate and his dedication to the sport have been a driving force for the Indians, according to coach Pete Nardello.
"He's a born leader," Nardello said. "He loves baseball. He just loves it. We go as he goes. When he's chirping, practice is tremendous."
Polanco has a South Jersey-best seven home runs. He also is batting .500 (16 for 32) with 12 extra-base hits and 13 RBIs.
Polanco said he tentatively plans to attend a junior college to continue his baseball career. But he could opt to pursue professional baseball if he's selected in the major- league draft in early June.
"That's my dream, to play professional baseball," the 6-foot-4, 250-pounder said.
Nardello said Polanco has been tracked this spring by professional scouts.
"We had some scouts out the other day watching him at batting practice, and he hit six home runs in 12 swings," Nardello said.
Nardello said Polanco was around 5-6 and 140 pounds when he came to Pennsauken to live with his father, Ramon. His older sister and nephew, Luis, who also is a member of the baseball team, live in Pennsauken, too.
"This is a kid who was put on a plane and came here by himself," Nardello said. "He was going through so much at that time."
Polanco said he was "scared" at first and struggled in school because he didn't speak English.
"People thought I was talking about them because I was speaking Spanish," Polanco said. "But after about a year when I learned English, it got a lot better. So many people helped me."
Nardello said Polanco sometimes has been misunderstood by some teachers and students at Pennsauken, especially after a growth spurt turned him into such a commanding physical presence.
"This is a big kid, but he's so soft inside," Nardello said.
Polanco has made steady improvement as a baseball player, thanks to those gains in height and weight as well as a fanatical devotion to the sport.
"This is a kid who swings the bat 365 days a year," Nardello said. "He loves batting practice. It's like the dinner bell for him. His eyes glaze over."
Polanco said he was trying too hard to hit home runs in games last week against LEAP Academy and Shawnee. He then went 3 for 4 with a double Thursday in an 11-0 win over Camden, and hit home run No. 7 in a 2-1 victory over defending state Group 3 champion Seneca on Friday.
"This is a kid who was behind in life," Nardello said. "In eighth and ninth grade, when you start to grow into a young man, he was dealing with so many other things. He's just starting to find his identity."