INDEPENDENCE — When Central senior Chris Polanco steps onto the tennis court, he’s playing for more than himself.
He plays for the fans in attendance.
He plays for his friends who have supported him throughout his high school career.
Most of all, he plays for family as a way to thank them for giving him something that had eluded him — a home.
“The biggest thing is this is for my grandmother (coach Patty Youngren),” Polanco said. “I’m doing this all for her. When I see the few people who show up to our matches, it makes me want to put on a respectable face when I go out because I’m representing our team, our school and my grandma.”
Polanco wasn’t sure whether this would be home.
Polanco, born in Arizona, was part of the foster care system and had moved multiple times in Arizona and Oregon.
Six years ago, he thought that was about to end.
“I was going to be adopted when I lived in Arizona, but it didn’t work out,” Polanco said.
He was instead placed with the Holliday family in Oregon.
Moving around had made it difficult for Polanco to ever feel settled and at home, but there was something different this time.
“They are really nice and I chose to stay here, and they took me in,” he said.
Panthers tennis coach, and Chris’ grandmother, Patty Youngren said the connection between Chris and the Hollidays was clear from the beginning.
“Kids are immediately family members,” she said. “We don’t let go. … His parents are very kid-first oriented. They do amazing things as a family and are very direct.”
As Polanco got settled, it was clear he found a place he could call home.
“I’m still in the foster care system, I just decided that I’d like to stay with this family because I really like them and the community,” he said. “I really didn’t want to move again and leave a perfect family.”
Both of his parents are Central High graduates, and when Polanco entered high school, they wanted him to find an athletic outlet.
“(Chris) was new here and his mother, my daughter, said he needed to be in a sport his freshman year,” Youngren said. “I was asked to coach tennis that year so (tennis) was an easy pick.”
Since that moment, Youngren has helped Polanco grow by leaps and bounds on the tennis court.
“The hardest thing to learn is serving,” Polanco said. “It’s very hard to get a precise serve every single time. With her help, I’ve gotten to the point where I feel competent at that.”
Polanco has also developed good anticipation and has become more aggressive in ending points.
“Chris reads the ball well and he is quick to get to the shot and get it back,” Youngren said. “He is becoming more consistent, and he is learning to place the ball more offensively.”
One of Polanco’s biggest strengths may be his ability to not get rattled. No matter what is happening on the court, he can adapt. That is, in part, due to adapting on the fly in the foster care system.
“It has helped me deal with adversity better,” Polanco said.
The senior also has watched matches on Youtube to study players like Raphael Nadal.
As Polanco has improved, he’s become a regular part of the Panthers’ varsity lineup — but he knows earning a trip to state will be difficult given the talent on other teams.
“I see myself sort of in the middle right now, but having something to prove,” he said. “There are a lot of points in every match that can go either way.”
This season has also been special because of playing for Youngren. Though her time is split among all the athletes, Polanco likely never would have picked up a tennis racket if Youngren didn’t suggest it.
That’s something he’ll be forever grateful for.
Polanco has high hopes for his senior season — but it’s not personal glory that he is chasing, instead it’s a way to show gratitude for Youngren and all she has done for him.
“I started playing tennis because of her,” Polanco said. “I’ve enjoyed it and ever since, I’ve played for her.”