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Legendary Fort Plain baseball coach wins national Coach of the Year honor

Legendary Fort Plain baseball coach Craig Phillips was named a 2017 National Coach of the Year by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Coaches Association last week.

Philips is the only baseball coach and one of just 23 high school coaches from across the country to be selected for the honor that the NFHS has awarded since 1982.

“To be honored with this award from our small school in upstate New York, I am just extremely honored. I hope I have made a difference, but most of all I am so proud that we have such great kids and such a great school and community that support the program and me,” said Phillips. “To be honored in this way is a great, great honor.”

“Coach Phillips’ selection as National Coach of the Year is a tremendous honor. It is also well-deserved,” Fort Plain Superintendent of Schools David Ziskin said. “Craig’s love of the game and his players has defined his career. He has made a unique and indelible imprint on the athletes he has coached, Fort Plain and on high school athletics in New York State.”

“I have known Craig for a very long time and seen him in action for a very long time and this kind of award recognizes not only the success of his teams, but also overcoming adversity,” Fort Plain Athletics Director Charlie Karker said. “This award recognizes the time, effort, and care that he has given to Fort Plain – not just the school or the team – all of Fort Plain.”

Phillips enters his 45th season this spring with more than 750 career wins – the most wins in the history of New York State high school baseball – and that success hasn’t waned over the last few years either.

Over the past two seasons, the Fort Plain baseball team was a combined 37-6, won the 2016 Class D New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) championship and reached the Section II final last year.

Phillips called the 2016 state title “improbable” at the time. The then-No. 3 seeded Hilltoppers beat top-seeded Fort Ann in eight innings, 2-1, in the Section II title game. Fort Plain then went on to beat Genesee Valley, 11-0, in the state semifinal and West Canada Valley in the state championship game, 11-6.

Always the coach, Philips said of his upcoming 2017 team, “We don’t have any seniors this year, but I expect us to still be pretty good.”

Overall, the Hilltoppers have won 24 league championships, 10 Section II titles and a pair of state championships during Philips’ tenure. The first sectional title was in 1981 and the first state crown came in 2007 in Class C. Including the 2016 run, Fort Plain has played in five NYSPHSAA state tournaments.

Even though Phillips tends to deflect his own accomplishments, he was named the NYSPHSAA Coach of the Year in both 2007 and 2016. He has served on the Section II baseball committee for 35 consecutive years and was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2011. He was inducted into the Capital Region Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012.

“There is something so intriguing about the game of baseball. Every year, there is always a restart of the season. It is always fresh and new. Since we are a small district, we always have new players that are question marks, but they have to play. We are lucky enough that they respond to myself and my other coaches,” Philips said. “I have to thank all of my assistant coaches from over the years. I started out alone, but without them, in this day and age, there is no way we would be as successful without them. I also want to thank the community for supporting our program and the school for giving us, and maintaining, such a gorgeous facility that we get to use.”

Phillips has had dozens of league, section, and state all-stars on his rosters over the years including 2016 New York State Sportswriters Association Class D Player of the Year, and 2017 First-Team All-State selection, Drew Fureno. Former players have also followed in the coach’s footsteps into the dugout. Former Hilltopper Jabin Weaver was named the head baseball coach at Hudson Valley Community College this past fall.

“I have coached so many great kids from great families, but I have never coached a grandson yet,” Philips joked as he rattled off name after name he has put on roster cards over the years. “We have a saying here in Fort Plain, ‘tradition never graduates.’ I know I am a tough guy to play for, but the way that the players, school, and community have rallied around baseball they have made that saying remain true for many years and it will remain true for many more.”