May 22, 2013

Coahulla Creek's Blake Phillips will play for Curtis Pride

Devin Golden

VARNELL — For four seasons, Coahulla Creek’s Blake Phillips played high school baseball with a disability. He did well enough to catch the eye of a college program led by a former Major League Baseball player.

On Tuesday at Coahulla Creek, Phillips celebrated his decision to commit to play baseball at Gallaudet University, an institution geared toward students with hearing disabilities. Phillips, a pitcher and shortstop, is hearing impaired in both ears and has a speech impediment.

Located in Washington, D.C., Gallaudet is a member of the NCAA’s Division III and competes in the Northeastern Athletic Conference. Division III programs are not permitted to offer athletic scholarships. Phillips is applying for an academic scholarship.

Gallaudet’s baseball team is coached by Curtis Pride, who played in the majors from 1993 to 2006 — including for the Atlanta Braves in 1998 — and who also is deaf. Pride has been with the Bison since the 2008-2009 season and led the program to single-season win records in 2011 (17) and 2012 (25). In the latter year, Gallaudet came a win shy of claiming the conference championship and Pride was named the conference’s coach of the year.

“It’s a school for the deaf and I felt it was right for me,” Phillips said, noting Pride’s presence as the head coach played a major role in his decision. “It was a unique opportunity for me.”

Around three weeks ago, Phillips and his family made a trip to visit the campus. That’s what closed the deal.

“On the way home from touring the school, that’s when I decided,” Phillips said.

Originally, Phillips was considering Lookout Mountain’s Covenant College and Rome’s Berry College.

“The first contact was when Gallaudet called me,” Coahulla Creek coach Michael Bolen said. “I sent them some video and it went from there. Up until that point, he was leaning toward Berry.”

After playing two seasons at Northwest Whitfield, Phillips transferred when Coahulla Creek opened for the 2011-2012 school year, along with best friend Scout Plott, who played catcher for the Colts.

Phillips thrived at Coahulla Creek. Originally a third baseman, he became the team’s starting shortstop in 2012. Coahulla Creek reached the Class 2A state playoffs that year, one of just two teams at the school — boys cross country was the other — to make the state postseason.

As a senior, Phillips assumed a bigger role as a starting pitcher, making 10 appearances, pitching 41 innings and finishing with a 2-2 record and a 1.71 ERA, the second best on the team. He hit .180 with nine RBIs, and at shortstop he had a fielding percentage of .871 with 11 errors.

Bolen called him “one of the cornerstones” of the program and a “quiet, confident leader” who garners respect through actions rather than words. He earned Bolen’s respect when he made the transition from third base to shortstop.

“Being around him and moving him out of that comfort zone at third base, where he didn’t have to communicate as much or do as many things, him taking on that challenge shows his character,” Bolen said. “Whatever you are expecting from him, I promise he expects more.”

Phillips said the plan is for him to primarily play shortstop and pitcher at Gallaudet.

“He’ll start right away, too,” said his father, Dan Phillips. “Those were the coach’s words.”

Gallaudet finished 20-21 overall and 11-3 in conference play this season, losing its opening game in the conference tournament to Penn State-Abington.