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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONDHEIMER

Hariton Traded Adversity for Net Gain

November 22, 1998|ERIC SONDHEIMER

Four lives were forever altered on a weekday morning in November of 1995.

A man came up to the bank teller, handed over a deposit slip, then informed the teller, "I have a gun in my pocket. I'm going to kill you if you don't give me all your money."

The teller followed orders. She handed over the money. The man left the bank. A silent alarm was activated. Sheriff's deputies and the FBI responded. The man escaped.

The robbery was considered so uneventful that not a word made it the next day in the local newspapers.

But don't tell Spencer Hariton, a senior guard at Calabasas High, life returned to normal.

His mother was the bank teller. A family nightmare was just beginning.

Sydney Hariton suffered post-traumatic stress. She developed anorexia, an eating disorder. For the next three years, she was in and out of treatment centers while Spencer, his sister and father tried to keep the family together.

Last summer and into the winter, for 13 weeks, Hariton's mother was away in Arizona seeking help. Spencer was home alone.

"I've lived on my own for the past three years pretty much," Spencer said. "It was tough. When people went places with their parents, I'd go myself or with someone else."

Basketball became Spencer's escape. He'd shoot baskets in his backyard early in the morning so often his neighbor complained about the noise.

"I made a deal, I'd do it every other day," he said.

Last season, a broken ankle cut short his junior year, forcing him to miss Calabasas' final six league games. He averaged 17.4 points.

Over the summer, teaming with another Calabasas player who dealt with his own adversity--guard Michael Goldman, who was academically ineligible--the Coyotes served notice they could be a top team in the Frontier League.

"Through it all, he's continued to play," said his father, Steve Hariton. "He's been able to persevere and use basketball as a way to stay focused."

Spencer's mother has returned home. The family will be together on Thanksgiving.

"He's very happy his mom is back," Steve said.

"She's doing better, but it's still tough," Spencer said.

Besides being thankful the family is together, Spencer said he has learned an important lesson from his mother.

"I've learned to never give up," he said.

*

The death of a parent is a worst-case scenario for any teenager.

Phil Polanco, a pitcher at Notre Dame High, has tried to move on after his father was killed on Aug. 6 in a construction accident.

"It was tough," he said. "All my family and friends and people at school talked with me and helped me out."

Polanco's mother was worried the family no longer could afford Notre Dame's $5,900 a year tuition after her husband's death.

To the rescue came the Altar Society, a mom's club at Notre Dame that raises scholarship funds for students who lose parents.

Since it began in 1990, eight Notre Dame students have received financial aid through the Altar Society. Polanco is grateful he can remain at the Sherman Oaks campus through the school's help.

"He's a good student and he's done everything on his own," said Tom Dill, baseball coach at Notre Dame. "Phil makes his own priorities and decided his freshman year he would be a hard worker from day one."

Polanco has relied on baseball to stay focused on his goals.

"It's the world to me," Polanco said. "I've been playing since I was 5 years old."

Last week, Polanco signed a letter of intent with the University of San Francisco.

He misses his father, but through the help of family and friends, Polanco will have plenty to be thankful about on Thanksgiving.

"I'm thankful I'm alive and able to play baseball," he said.

*

Coach Jim Smiley of Crescenta Valley started the "Falcon 1,000" last basketball season. The goal was to have basketball players participate in 1,000 hours of community service.

"We made it our mission to go to elementary schools, junior highs and [visit] elderly people who can use help," Smiley said.

Players have planted flowers, painted buildings, pulled weeds, raked leafs, trimmed trees, cleaned windows, moved garbage, given speeches and run clinics.

Their most-recent project was cleaning up the front yard for an 82-year-old woman who lives near the school.

One player talked to junior high students about saying no to drugs. Another player, guard Mark McCauley, gave a speech to an assembly at Mountain Avenue Elementary School about "chasing your dreams."

"I was telling them to go after what they want and not be afraid," McCauley said. "Go chase your dreams and don't let anything stop you."

McCauley dreamed of playing basketball and baseball at Crescenta Valley. As a boy, he showed up for games and imagined himself in a Falcon uniform. Last June, he was the starting second baseman for a Falcon team that won the Division I championship at Dodger Stadium.

"We're their mentors," he said of the children he spoke to, who ranged from kindergartners to sixth-graders.

It's good to see teenagers using sports to make a positive influence on their lives.

*

Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422.

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