Mike’s secret weapon? Perazzis.
“Perazzi is absolutely the best competition shotgun out there,” Mike said, who has recommended 188 Perazzis to his students since 1996, with zero compensation from the Italian gunmaker. “There’s no place else where I can get a gun made for my students. A large part of my success is to be able to do that. Perazzi is the Ferrari of shotguns.”
Ava’s Perazzi arrived in June 2020, and now that she’s getting comfortable with it, Mike believes they have solved part of the equation to increase her potential. Above and beyond the shotgun, he sees that “Ava has a great attitude and she’s going to go far with it. She’s a pleasure to coach.”
Ava’s Perazzi journey started the day after Christmas 2019 with a visit to master gunfitter, Chris Batha. With Chris’ measurements in hand, Kevin ordered her Perazzi MX8 with 30-inch barrels, screw-in chokes, drop-out trigger group with leaf springs and an adjustable comb in case she continued to grow. Her shotgun was ordered as Covid-19 overtook Italy – meaning that the completed shotgun had to sit at Perazzi for several months before being shipped. It finally arrived via Pacific Sporting Arms, a leading Perazzi dealer in Azusa, California, which is a short drive from Azusa-based Perazzi USA.
Shooting the Perazzi MX8, Ava navigated an adjustment curve from her Beretta A400 semi-auto, before reaching a positive inflection point. “She improved in a lot of ways after getting the Perazzi,” Kevin said.
Looking back, Ava talked about how her immersion into clays shooting at Brookwood began after a friend on the shooting team had urged her to try bunker trap.
“He encouraged me to come out and practice with them to see if I liked it,” she said. “I shot all that fall and got interested in it and started practicing more and more.”
She had always been athletic, and at five-foot-nine playing on Brookwood’s women’s varsity basketball was a natural path for her to take. She stayed involved with both varsity teams until March 2020.
“After basketball season, I started shooting almost daily,” Ava added.
“I’d like to think I was very instrumental in the early days,” said Ava’s mother, Raina. “During Covid, it was Ava and me, and as soon as we finished online school, I took her to Coach Mike’s. I go to every shoot. I’ve gotten so good at organizing their shoots, I’m now the team’s assistant coach.”
It was also in 2020 that Raina and Kevin became certified as Level I instructors with the National Sporting Clays Association as a means of providing guidance to the Brookwood Shooting Team. The certification marked a milestone in their long-term dedication to Ava’s clays-shooting pursuit.
Meanwhile, Kevin started competing in National Sporting Clays Association events after Ava began participating in NSCA tournaments – opening new doors for both of them.
Raina and Kevin were supportive of Ava’s interest in clays as early as 11 years old, when she started taking shooting lessons. But shortly afterwards she gravitated to basketball full time. Kevin, a partner in the Thomasville law firm of McCollum, Rawlins & Cauley, was a quail hunter and clays shooting enthusiast. Despite her basketball aspirations, Ava would occasionally hunt birds and shoot clays with her father. Otherwise, Kevin and Raina would shoot sporting clays at a few local courses, with weekend sporting clays trips out of state.
Ava competed in the Georgia Junior Olympics USA shooting a bunker trap competition held early May 2020. Even though at the time she was shooting her 12-gauge Beretta A400, she won the women’s division.
Mike got Ava into the youth Scholastic Clay Target Program. The SCTP prepares students from elementary through high school and college to compete in trap, skeet, sporting clays, Olympic bunker trap and international skeet.
Her first sporting clays tournament was the Seminole Cup in March 2020 at the Sea Island Sporting Club and Lodge in Woodbine, Georgia.
That August, in a Georgia Independent School Association tournament of sporting clays and skeet, Brookwood’s clay target team scored the top five highest scores, with Ava taking a podium finish of third place.
By June 2021, Ava had been chosen for the National Scholastic Shooting Sports Foundation All Scholastic Team, which is recruited from high school shooters across the country with a minimum 3.5 unweighted grade point average and elite level scores in a shooting match under the auspices of the Scholastics Clay Target program.
So 18 months after training with Mike, Ava had won in both sporting clays and in the Georgia Junior Olympic Trap Championship – qualifying her for honors in both disciplines.
Come June 2021, Ava competed in the National Sporting Clays Georgia State Championship in Savannah. In the four-day match Ava won first place in one side event and went on to win the 200-target main event in her class.
To anyone familiar with Mike coaching career, Ava’s progress would seem almost matter-of-fact.
His credentials include Level IV USA Shooting and NRA Instructor, member of the National Coaches Development Staff, USA Shooting Coach Academy Master Instructor and High Performance Coach, and International Shooting Sports Federation Academy Level C Coach. He works with National 4-H Shooting Sports Program and the Amateur Trap Shooting Association. USA Shooting named him its 2013 National Coach of the Year. He’s instructed members of Team USA. He coached the Florida State University Shooting Team for some eight years until Covid-19 put the brakes on that. At the University of Georgia, he served a 19-year stint on the Board of Directors of the shooting sports program. His breadth of knowledge reaches into Olympic trap, sporting clays, skeet and double trap.
“Just about every bunker-trap champion shooter has worked with Mike,” Kevin said.
Mike’s Bridge Creek Clays South Georgia Youth Shooting Club seems like an unlikely place for a stable of young bunker-trap champions. Located in rural Hartsfield, Georgia, it’s about a 40-minute drive northeast of Thomasville where the road out of town soon leads through farm acreage… then keep on driving.
The rustic clubhouse is ensconced in a grove of pine trees. Under a side overhang there’s patio furniture, an ATV and an unplugged refrigerator. Inside, where the atmosphere is musty, a radio station plays hits from the 60s, 70s and 80s. The wood paneled walls and deer head mounts belong in a hunting camp. Portable banquet tables are arranged classroom-style. A large side table is overflowing with students’ trophies. Boxes of stuff are everywhere. Fitting Mike’s low-key demeanor, his desk is a small rattan table.
In a way, the place is a time capsule from the club’s inception about 30 years ago on the 60 wooded acres owned by Mike and his late wife, Gloria. They originally started Bridge Creek Clays South Georgia Youth Shooting Club as a trap shooting program for the 4-H. But over time “Our kids won state and national championships, and some of the them won at the highest level of Amateur Traps Shooting Association in 1996,” he said. “We’ve won numerous World Cup medals.”
In 1999, Mike and Gloria installed their first bunker trap field (the club now has two). Each underground bunker contains 15 trap machines and cost, by Mike’s estimation, $180,000 to buy and install. The club throws approximately 750,000 targets per year.
“We put the club here so kids could fulfill their dreams,” he said. “We realized if any kids were going to be competitive, they needed top-level coaching.”
A cornerstone of Mike’s philosophy is to make the club affordable to all kids. Even today, Mike’s student’s pay only seven dollars per round, including his training time.
“The club has never been a moneymaking operation,” he said. “It’s a tool to reach out to young kids. Bunker trap is a sport for life. A lot of people don’t realize the discipline it teaches. The kids who go through this program go on to be very successful. It teaches them confidence, and that’s the key to their success.”
Mike has taught bunker trap to upwards of 4,000 students starting at eight years old and up through college “from all over the world,” he explained.
Kevin is especially grateful for Mike’s program. “It has been an incredible journey with Ava. It is a true blessing for a dad to be able to walk this path his daughter.”
It’s now July 2021 and I’m shooting skeet at the Ranges at Oakfield in Thomasville with Ava and Kevin. He’s shooting a Perazzi High-Tech Blackout Edition with SCO grade three Turkish walnut, drop-out leaf-spring trigger group (that’s interchangeable with Ava’s Perazzi), and 32-inch barrels with screw-in chokes.
The High-Tech was a reward to himself because “It just wasn’t right that Ava got a Perazzi and I’m the one paying for all this,” he joked.
Like Ava, Kevin went through a six-week gunfit with Chris – the finished piece shipping through Cole Gunsmithing in Naples, Florida. (It subsequently turns out that Raina finally grew tired of shooting Ava’s hand-me-down Beretta A400 and ordered a Perazzi MX8 Sporter through Cole as well.)
“Chris did a beautiful job making a gun where I can keep both eyes open all the time,” Kevin explained. “I have central vision, and had to close my left eye on right-to-left crossing targets that were especially long and fast.”
Regardless, Kevin’s still misses targets and of course, on the skeet field, Ava is quick to offer advice. When she’s finished, he glances sidelong at me with a smile that clearly shows how proud he is of his daughter.