Favorite athlete: Miguel Cabrera
Favorite team: Philadelphia Phillies
Favorite memory competing in sports: Coming back from being down 6-0, putting up 14 unanswered runs to win the 2021 SOL Colonial Conference championship
Most embarrassing/funniest thing that has happened while competing in sports: Falling on my face while rounding third base
Music on playlist: Rap
Future plans: Playing baseball at Elizabethtown College and studying Exercise Science - I would like to coach baseball someday
Words to live by: “It’s not about who you know but how many people you impact along the way.”
One goal before turning 30: Win a Championship
One thing people don’t know about me: I love dogs
By Mary Jane Souder
It was undoubtedly an unusual sight in the Upper Gwynedd neighborhood of RJ Agriss during last spring’s shutdown for the COVID-19 pandemic. The recent North Penn graduate – despite losing his junior baseball season – was determined to work on his game and came up with an innovative practice method.
“My mom and I would go out in the street – she would take a tennis racquet and a tennis ball, and she would hit me ground balls with that,” Agriss said. “We had to be a little creative.”
Creative and also driven to improve.
“It was tough especially because we didn’t have a season with those seniors, who are some of my best friends – that was the hardest part,” Agriss said. “After that, it was just saying – am I going to waste this time or am I going to go out and get better?
“I just committed myself to getting better every day and that came with a lot of simple stuff like tee work, ground balls in the street – stuff you wouldn’t typically do in the middle of a high school baseball season.”
Agriss was penciled in to start at first base last spring after playing jayvee as a sophomore, and he gave glimpses of his desire to be the best he could be before he set foot on the diamond at North Penn.
“Going into ninth grade, he reached out to me over the summer and said, ‘Hey, I was wondering – maybe we could meet at the batting cage, take some swings. I’m really looking forward to playing for North Penn,’” coach Kevin Manero said. “That’s the first time I really ever worked with RJ. On his own accord, he decided to do that. He’s the same kid that he was four years ago, just a lot stronger, a lot more experienced and a lot more confident.
“He wasn’t an automatic. He didn’t come in as a superstar, highly touted stud middle school player. He came in as a good-sized kid who was gritty and tough. He stayed that way all the way through and worked his way into being an everyday starter. He’s a guy that people are drawn to, he’s a guy that when he talks – people listen, a guy that is already turning around coaching younger kids.”
A guy that also has a team-first mentality. It’s a trait that was on full display when – after being sidelined with COVID-19 this spring – he lost his starting third base job to a player he had mentored.
“For the first three months of the season, I had Justin (Egner) under my wing just teaching him what it was to play North Penn baseball because that’s what the guys last year did for me,” Agriss said. “It’s kind of like a passing of the torch.
“I had to miss a game, so my sophomore, Justin Egner, had to step up in my place. He played a great game, and it ended up that he stayed there, and I just slid right over to first base, and that was kind of the start of everything. Justin played amazing. He was a huge asset to our lineup.”
So wasn’t Agriss just a little bit upset to lose a position he’d played most of his life?
“Nope,” he said. “If we’re winning baseball games, life is good. As long as we’re winning, I don’t really care where I am.”
And North Penn was definitely winning. After a 5-4 start, the Knights won 15 of their next 18 games and advanced to the PIAA 6A state semifinals where they fell to eventual state champion La Salle 2-0.
“I feel like the real turning point as a team was – we went up to Neshaminy and played a really tough baseball game,” Agriss said. “Earlier in the season, we had been losing the tight baseball games, and we were able to flip it around.
“Mike Lennon pitched a beautiful game that game and we won 3-2. I kind of was, ‘All right, we can do this.’ Neshaminy was an extremely good baseball team that we just went and drove an hour and beat them on their home field.”
As for taking Egner under his wing this season, according to Agriss, that’s just the North Penn way.
“I feel like Chris McLean passed me the torch last year, so I see what Chris was able to do to help me out, and that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “I want to help these younger kids out so it’s not just we’re having a great year this year – I want North Penn baseball to have great years every year. I want it to be a great program in general. That’s what coach Manero has built – he’s built a great program.”
Agriss grew up playing baseball, basketball and soccer – the same three sports his father had played. His mother also competed in sports.
“My whole family – all my uncles and aunts were into sports, and that’s how I was raised,” Agriss said. “I always knew from the beginning baseball was my favorite, but I loved the other two so I stuck with them through middle school.
“By the time seventh grade came, I played seventh grade soccer, but I quit after that so I could play baseball in the fall.”
Agriss played basketball through ninth grade, but when he entered high school, he put all of his energy into baseball.
“I don’t know – I think it was just my brain always worked in a baseball kind of way where you always had to be thinking, you always had to be on your toes and that’s what drew me to it,” Agriss said. “I was always better at baseball than I was at the other two, so I think that helped a little bit.”
The script was going as planned until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 season as well as his Nor-Gwyn American Legion season that summer.
“I ended up joining the travel team Baseball U,” Agriss said. “I was able to get on that team late, and that was actually one of the best things that could have happened to me.
“I formed a lot of relationships with guys that I wouldn’t have been able to, I formed relationships with coaches, and it was great to help me get recruited to play at the next level.”
Agriss was the starting third baseman for the Knights when his final high school season began this spring, but then came his bout with COVID. He was the first of several players diagnosed with COVID-19, and with that diagnosis came the mandatory shutdown of the team for an entire week.
“It was tough, as a team, we struggled in the beginning of the season, and we get shut down – what is happening? We just set ourselves up for a really hard path the rest of the season,” Agriss said. “I had a phone call with coach Manero while I had COVID, and he told me, ‘Maybe this is a blessing in disguise for us, maybe we’ll come back and something good will happen from this.’”
With the shutdown came a myriad of changes to the Knights’ lineup.
“We switched the left and right side of our infield completely,” Manero said. “We switched our batting order, we switched our DH. We made so many changes and nobody complained.
“Not one guy ever had a cross word to say about playing time or roles or anything. It was like, ‘Hey, if we’re going to be better and winning, let’s do it,’ and that’s what we did. RJ was grooming Justin for next year. That change happened a lot sooner. RJ had to miss a game (due to COVID), and Justin played third. He was really good, and I think a lot of it had to do with RJ being by his side from the very beginning of the season until then. It worked out great, and Justin is a better player for it.”
Agriss, however, paid a high price for his illness, struggling at the plate.
“I feel like COVID definitely affected me,” he said. “Taking a week off of not playing baseball didn’t help, and I lost 10 pounds. I wasn’t fully back to normal until probably a month after I got it. COVID definitely took a toll.”
Despite his struggles, Agriss never lost his voice with the team.
“The biggest thing with him was – he’s been like an extra coach,” Manero said. “He was batting under .200 for most of the year, but he helped us in so many ways.
“I know that talent is everything, and when it comes down to it at the end of the day, you have to hit, pitch and play defense, but you also have to have seniors that put the team on their shoulders and lead by example. You never see RJ take a rep off at practice, you never see him show up to practice in a bad mood, you never see him get frustrated to the point where he takes his own head out of the game. He leads by example, and when you have younger guys that see that – not only did he mean a lot to the team, he’s going to mean a lot to the next three teams.”
Agriss credited last year’s seniors for giving him that confidence.
“I always feel like I’ve known a lot about baseball and I had a lot to teach people, but I was never really confident in myself to go out and tell anybody – ‘This will help you, this is what we need to do in this situation,’” he said. “The seniors last year just taking me under their wing and teaching me what it was like to play North Penn baseball – that helped, so when I got to that point in the season where I’m struggling offensively, I remember - and this is what I’m trying to teach the younger guys – there’s more to baseball than just hitting. Where I can help my team win is being a coach out there, keeping everybody’s heads up, keeping everyone positive and just teaching people.”
Agriss will continue his baseball career this fall at Elizabethtown College where he will major in exercise science. An excellent student, he was a member of the National Honor Society and also was part of the LINK Crew, which helps sophomores transitioning into high school.
Last winter, he worked at Joe Calfapietra’s ‘Baseball Instruction at its Best Academy,’ giving lessons to youngsters.
“Joe’s big in the North Penn community, so it was fun being out in the community,” Agriss said. “Now Joe coaches an Independent League baseball team, so he had to leave in April, so now I’m giving lessons on my own at a local field, which has been fun.”
Coaching is in his blood, and Agriss makes no secret about the fact that it is his goal to coach. There’s no mistaking he’s a student of the game.
“When I’m out on the field, I try and learn as much as possible,” he said. “I don’t care if (I’m playing) just first base or third base, I listen to our outfield coach, I listen to our pitching coach. I just try and learn as much as possible and that’s what’s fun to me. It’s something I could see myself doing in the future.”
Agriss playing days at North Penn are behind him, but he leaves with memories that will last a lifetime.
“I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything,” he said. “I met my best friends here, and these are going to stay my best friends. I’m not going to lose these relationships.
“I’m going to see these kids that I’ve helped grow and had the pleasure to teach. I’m going to be able to come back and see them play next year, and I’m going to know I might have had a bit of an impact on these kids.”
According to his coach, he’s done that and a whole lot more.
“He is such a great, outgoing kid, and he was just like an extra coach,” Manero said. “He’s going to be in baseball the rest of his life, and boy, does the sport need that.”
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