Riley Self’s lasting impact on MHS and MSU
On March 26, 2021, Riley Self’s college baseball career came to an unceremonious end.
As the Coldwater native and Magnolia Heights product made a late-inning relief appearance during an 8-2 loss against Arkansas, the senior pitcher suffered an elbow injury and underwent Tommy John surgery just days later, putting the wraps on his senior season.
But even as the book closed on his playing career, another chapter began. That chapter would begin by still being with his Mississippi State teammates throughout the season, serving as a first base coach for the Bulldogs.
It’s a selfless step and one that comes as no surprise to his high school coach, Chris McMinn.
To understand the work ethic of Riley Self, one must look back at his high school days at Magnolia Heights. Self earned a starting role as a freshman, pitching and serving as the team’s designated hitter.
Even as a freshman, Self was one of many pivotal pieces that helped McMinn to a perfect 37-0 season, culminated by Magnolia Heights’ third title in five seasons at the time. He was part of a crowded, but talented roster that featured Division I talent in Jacob Billingsley (Mississippi State), Dalton Skelton (Louisiana Tech), along with JUCO standouts Kevin Barber (Holmes) and Luke Latham (Northwest).
Aside from the upperclassmen stood a group of loaded underclassmen like Northwest and Delta State two-sport athlete David Herrington, fellow Rangers Jamell Newson, Harrison Sandridge and catcher Dustin Skelton, who went on to join Self in Starkville.
As well-balanced as that team was, it was the freshmen that really caught the eye of McMinn, including Self, who had caught the attention of Mississippi State himself after the end of the 2013 season.
“A lot of that players in that group went on to play to play college baseball and have success at the next level,” McMinn recalled. “You could see that potential already when they were just freshmen, being the first ones at practice and the last ones to leave. All around, they were a real cohesive group. They went fishing together, hung out together and played summer ball together.”
Throughout his varsity career, Self grew and developed his pitching against some of the toughest competition in the country. Not only did the Chiefs have to get through tough in-state competition like Jackson Prep and Madison-Ridgeland Academy, but McMinn branched out and picked up games against dominant opponents outside of the state.
Through the years, Self found himself going up against some of the top teams in the nation, including IMG Academy and a loaded Houston County (Ga.) team, led by future Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm. As his career progressed, he earned numerous All-American honors from Perfect Game, and Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, just to name a few.
Even when the Chiefs didn’t always win, McMinn remained impressed with the growth of his 2013 freshman class, including Self.
“He was the ultimate competitor and wanted the ball in every big game we had,” McMinn recalled. “Not only was he a good pitcher, but he was a good hitter as well. Most importantly, he was like a coach on the field. He absorbed everything about the game at a young age and that’s what helped carry him through his time at Mississippi State.”
Making his mark
It didn’t take long for Self to make an impact upon arrival in Starkville.
In his Bulldog debut on February 17, 2017, Self allowed one hit and struck out two batters in a scoreless inning of relief against Texas Tech. Two days later, he was back on the mound against the Red Raiders, this time throwing seven strikeouts in five innings of Mississippi State’s win against Texas Tech.
From there, Self became a mainstay out of the bullpen, posting 20 strikeouts and a 3.72 ERA, while also earning a 5-2 record with eight saves.
That season, Mississippi State finished with a 40-27 overall record and earned a trip to the Hattiesburg Regional, where the Bulldogs bounced back from a 6-3 loss to South Alabama to sweep the competition, including two wins against regional host Southern Miss.
As for Self, he earned two of his eight saves on the season in that regional, first against UIC and then against the Golden Eagles in the regional final. For the next two years, Self remained a big part of the Bulldogs’ bullpen, helping MSU to back-to-back College World Series appearances in 2018 and 2019.
Through it all, Self and McMinn remained in touch, mostly through texts of encouragement and congratulations.
“It was always exciting for me to see him pitch on TV,” McMinn said. “I know how hard he worked from a young age to get to where he is today.”
After gaining an extra year of eligibility following COVID-19’s abrupt end to the 2020 season, Self and his teammates took the field once again this year, opening the regular season in Arlington, Texas as part of a three-day, six-team battle between the best of the Big XII conference and SEC programs MSU, Ole Miss and Arkansas.
Self’s first appearance back on the mound didn’t go as planned, however, as he lasted just a third of an inning with a double and two runs allowed during an 8-3 against Texas. Although he would later rebound with scoreless frames against Tulane, Grambling, Eastern Michigan and North Alabama, his injury against Arkansas cut his swan song season short after just seven appearances.
But he took little time to focus on himself and instead, Riley Self remained with his teammates, stepping into a role as first base coach and traveling on every road trip, remaining as the Bulldogs’ master motivator both on the field and in the dugout.
“That’s one thing that makes me proud when I watched what MSU did in Omaha,” McMinn said. “I know he could have easily been a part of that success on the mound during that run. (But) at the same time, he still has played a big role in their success, just in a different role as a base coach, being a motivator and being engaged in the game throughout.”
After the Bulldogs officially wrapped up their first national title with the Game 3 win against Vanderbilt, Self was one of the first to get his hands on the trophy and one of the last to finally let it go after the game, carrying it through the team hotel, past the crowd of maroon-clad fans, which included Mississippi State legends Jonathan Papelbon and Rafael Palmeiro.
For Self, this is still the beginning of great things to come. He earned his undergraduate degree in sport studies in December 2020 and will leave Mississippi State ranking sixth all-time in career appearances (79), while also leaving on top as a national champion.
Regardless of what else is to come, McMinn knows that his legacy on Mississippi State and on Magnolia Heights will never be forgotten.
“His positive attitude and his love for the game and his teammates is what carried him through his injury (at Mississippi State),” McMinn said. “For us, he was a big part of our past championships and he’s had a massive role in the history of Magnolia Heights baseball, from where we were, where we are now and that’s something that will never be taken away.”