Less than four years ago, Sheldon Rodgers had never fired a gun at a target. Two weeks ago in Nashville, he led Soddy-Daisy High School to the state sporting clays championship by hitting 97 flying discs out of 100 from a series of 15 stations.
Rodgers was the tournament's high overall scorer and the all-state captain for sporting clays -- a distinction that includes academic success as well as shotgun prowess -- while teammate Paxton Pelfrey was the all-state captain for skeet. Blake Dunn, the third member of the state champion team, was the individual skeet winner the next day with a 99, after Austin Gravitt won the individual clays title with a 93.
All four will be back for another year, while junior varsity individual clays champion Cody Hedgecoth and fellow JV state runners-up Dakota Davis and Erica Dunn each has three more years of high school. Erica, Blake's sister, was the top JV female individual in skeet, the clays runner-up and a member of the girls' varsity all-state team.
"When we got there, there were dozens of teams from around Nashville and West Tennessee and farther up East Tennessee," said Trevor Fuller, the English teacher who coaches the Soddy-Daisy shooters with help from former skeet world champion Mike Gray and sporting-clays specialist Craig Sheaffer, who owns Montlake Classic Clays with his wife, Dawn.
"We were paired with the defending state champs [Jefferson County], but they found out real quick that we came ready to shoot."
Fuller acknowledged that he, Sheaffer and Gray created the winning plan, "but it was up to the guys to put the pieces together, and they did it."
Specifically of the champion rising seniors, Fuller said, "I call them the Four Horsemen because they're so close and they've meant so much to our team. I've had them since they were freshmen, but they were friends before that."
The celebration continues tonight with the team banquet, but the Trojans won't rest on their 2012 achievements. They're visiting with the Fort Benning shooting team Aug. 18-19 to get more insight on the mental aspect.
"We've got the attitude that we've got to work even harder," Pelfrey said.
"This is not an arrogant group of kids. They're not cocky at all about what they've done," Dawn Sheaffer said.
Added her husband: "They're a great group of kids. It's gratifying to see these guys hitting 8s and 9s and 10s a couple of years ago and now shooting in the 90s. You give them lessons and do the gun fitting and see them improve, but what really impresses you is their attitudes and the caliber of people they are."
It was Pelfrey who got the word to the other three "horsemen" that Fuller was gauging interest in a shooting team early in their freshman year, after encouragement from a Nashville director of the state Scholastic Sporting Clays program. About 35 signed up, and Fuller has had to make cuts to keep the annual roster at about 20.
Pelfrey long has been a bird hunter. The other three had done some hunting also, including deer. Rodgers, for one, had used only a rifle, not a .12-gauge shotgun. But they all have fed off each other's enthusiasm and improvement.
"We were horrible when we started," Blake Dunn said, adding that the first score he remembered was a 7.
"Mike has helped us a lot in skeet, and Craig in sporting clays," Rodgers said, "but the main way I've learned stuff is from the other guys. If they learn stuff, they share it."
According to Pelfrey, "We've all still got our secrets, and we're always competitive, but if you get down we'll bring you back up."
Said Gravitt: "If you miss, the worst thing you can do is get down and go to the next station and talk yourself out of that bird. But with this team and our coaches, they say, 'You'll get the next one.'"
Dunn said that kind of support goes beyond the sport.
"These guys don't just help me in shooting, but if I'm struggling in school or whatever," he said.
His sister said she also has learned a lot from her older teammates.
"Especially in skeet, I've watched all four of them and picked up on things," she said.
She actually had the family's high skeet score, 98, until Blake broke it. He admitted that had been an added motivation for him.
"My sister and my mom would dog me, but I'm all right now," he said. "I'm proud of her."
The seniors are proud also of the other young guns. That showed in Pelfrey's proclamation that Hedgecoth had to win a shootoff with a McKenzie County boy for the JV championship, "and Cody's gun probably cost him $450 with all the gun-fitting. The other kid had an $8,000 or $10,000 gun."
While Pelfrey said shooting clays "is more addicting" even than his several other outdoors interests, the teamwork aspect has been the biggest joy for him.
"We've all been friends for a long time, but this has brought us that much closer," he said.