OK, you're on a roll, Gary Caperna says to himself. Keep blocking everything out. Don't think about the crowd. Only the next clay pigeon counts right now. It's what skeet shooting's all about.
You got this. Be the bird. See the bird. Shoot the bird.
"That's the thing, it's just 'see it and shoot it,' " says Caperna, 52, of Medford. "You have to trust yourself. Skeet's a lot that way. Positive reinforcement. Visualize that you're going to break it. The rest is muscle memory."
For three days last month, Caperna's muscles had near photographic recall, creating a memory Caperna will never forget. How could he with the two huge trophies they captured?
Caperna won this year's Oregon Skeet Shooting Association championship, shooting a near-perfect score to win the .410-gauge division and overall champion July 27 — just a year after the occasional bird hunter took up the sport. And he did it using a gun five other clay-pigeon shooters gave up using.
His run included breaking 178 consecutive clay targets on the first day of the competition, hitting 98 of 100 in the .410-gauge competition then the first 88 of the .20-gauge division.
"As it was happening, I was saying that I couldn't believe this," Caperna says. "Any time you get 25 straight you go, boy, that's pretty good. But when you're breaking one after another after another, you get in the zone. I just happened to get in one for a couple days."
Having a novice shooter who hadn't shot registered competition targets until January has wowed Oregon's skeet community.
"It's unprecedented, and that's what so exciting about it," says Jim Roos, a long-time skeet shooter who introduced the sport to Caperna.
Caperna's background as a golfer — his father Ron Caperna was a long-time club pro at the Rogue Valley Country Club — and his work as an architect give him two developed traits that bode well in skeet shooting.
"As an architect, Gary has great spacial awareness, and from golf he developed that ability to concentrate," Roos says. "I could see that in Gary."
Caperna hunted pheasants and waterfowl occasionally, but he was never a target shooter until he drove by the Medford Gun Club with his fiancee, Veronica Graff, who suggested they go shoot there.
She never joined him, but Roos dragged Caperna to the club, and he's been a regular since.
Along with trap shooting and sporting clays, skeet is one of the three major disciplines of competitive
clay pigeon shooting. Participants shoot individually from stations along a half-circle, with target houses on each end.
At the shooter's behest, a clay disc is fired from one of the houses, the left one firing high and the right one low. Targets are released individually and simultaneously.
Participants are required to shoot 100 targets, and they are broken down into divisions based on gun gauges — 12-gauge, 20-gauge, 28-gauge and .410-gauge, which is also called .410 bore.
The OSSA has titles in each discipline, with shooters who participate in all five divisions qualifying for the Highest Overall Average, which is considered the top winner.
Shooters typically use the same over-under shotgun, modified to match the various gauges. Caperna shoots a Browning that was owned at various times by five other club members before it fell into his hands.
Caperna began shooting a match a month in January, steadily improving his scores, but he was still rather run-of-the-mill.
"Well, I had my moments," he says. "But not consistently."
His breakout came after attending a June shooting clinic in Cottage Grove conducted by Todd Bender, a 22-time world champion who preached more mental aspects of competition shooting than the mechanics.
"It's really a mental game," he says. "You need to be able to see the targets clearly. One little mistake, you miss, and there's no getting it back."
Caperna took what he learned to the Josephine County Sports Park near Grants Pass and immediately saw his scores rise. He missed just 12 targets out of 400, shooting himself into a shoot-out with Jerry Gunter of Merlin.
Caperna broke 24 of the 25 targets in the shoot-off with his .410-gauge, besting Gunter by one.
"The amazing thing is these guys shoot better than me," Caperna says. "But not this time."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.