RIDGELAND – Johnny Smith was 6-years old the last time the Starkville High football team played for a state championship.
A full decade later it was Smith helping send the Yellowjackets back to 'The Big House'.
Smith's 56-yard punt return for a touchdown and 32-yard fumble return for a score keyed SHS in a 28-7 win over Ridgeland on Friday, giving the Jackets the Class 5A North crown and allowing Starkville to play in the state championship game for the first time since 2001.
The Jackets improved their record to 12-2 and ended the Titans season at 10-4.
"I't does not get any better than this," said SHS coach Jamie Mitchell, who will now play for a state title for the first time in his head coaching career. "I've been dreaming about this for a long time and this is unreal. Absolutely unreal."
SHS quarterback Gabe Myles ran for 99 yards and two touchdowns and Ladorious Pittman racked up 130 yards on the ground to help push the Jackets to victory.
Yet it was Smith's athleticism that seemingly turned the game around.
After Ridgeland surged ahead 7-0 in the first quarter on a 21-yard touchdown run by Quardarius Armour, Smith pulled Starkville even in the early moments of the second period.
On a 3rd-and-26 play from their own 23-yard line, the Titans elected to try and surprise the Jackets with a quick punt in an attempt to gain the field-position advantage.
Smith instead turned the tables on Ridgeland as the defensive back got to the ball, picked it up and returned it 56 yards for the tying score.
"I got my hands on it and had to make a move," said Smith. "My teammates had a good wall set up and I just made the best of it."
Following Smith's return, the score held until Starkville took control early in the second half.
On the Jackets opening drive of the third quarter, SHS took its first lead of the game when Myles scampered into the end zone on an 11-yard carry, putting the Jackets ahead 14-7.
It was a welcomed sight for Mitchell after Myles had suffered through a shaky first half.
"(Myles) was so down at halftime," said Mitchell. "We just told him that he's led us all year long and (the second half) was his half to win. He came back and did some great things."
Moments after Myles' touchdown run, Smith again came up big for the Jackets.
As Ridgeland attempted to even the score, Armour fumbled the ball away.
Smith recovered on the Titans' 32-yard line and took it all the way in for another touchdown and a 21-7 SHS lead.
"(The fumble) just fell right in my lap," said Smith.
From there, Starkville's defense completely took control.
The Jackets limited Ridgeland to just 209 total yards in the game.
Only 55 of those came from Armour, who had rushed for over 1,800 yards this season entering Friday's contest.
As a result, Ridgeland turned to a passing attack that proved ineffective thanks to Starkville's aggressive defense.
"After we got going, we got their running game under control," said Mitchell. "Then we just dialed up the pressure on the quarterback and just determined if they were going to beat us, they were going to have to get the ball off before we could get to the quarterback.
"Our defensive front really harassed (Ridgeland quarterback Tyler James) all night and he just didn't have enough time to set his feet and throw the ball."
As the Titans offense continued to struggle, Myles capped the night's scoring late in the fourth quarter with a 12-yard touchdown run.
Myles' second score essentially cemented Starkville's place in next Saturday's 7 p.m. championship game against Picayune, who beat Pearl River Central 45-10 on Friday to win the Class 5A South crown.
"We all believe we have the tools to win state and it's just happening," said Myles. "We all bought into what we had. We've got an empty trophy stand in our locker room. That's where the trophy is supposed to be. We're trying to make sure we put that trophy on top of that stand."