On a blustery spring day in Fairfax, Va., six members of one of
college sports' greatest dynasties stroll unnoticed through the
parking lot at the Izaak Walton Gun Club. They shoot the place
up, co-opt the clubhouse couches for a few hours and then leave
with an inelegant but proud strut--a bunch of Yosemite Sams
after a showdown with Daffy Duck.
Back on campus, at nearby George Mason University, the group
tends to keep together, padding quietly over the school's
hillocks and through its tangled coppices. They are members of
one of the nation's winningest varsity teams, with a streak of
nine consecutive collegiate national trap and skeet
championships. Still, ``about 90 percent of the campus doesn't
even know we exist,'' says Dave Serdynski, a senior who once
stood before his English class and drew a diagram of a
trapshooting field on the blackboard. He was trying to explain
his sport, which his classmates had never heard of, and its
connection to the athletic department.
And though the department's trap and skeet brochure has not been
updated since 1989--it mentions only the program's first three
championships and profiles shooters who have long since
graduated --the school will indeed be gunning for its 10th
straight title next week in San Antonio. If the team wins again,
George Mason will close out a decade of dominance launched by
its former coach, John Linn, who died of a heart attack in June
1992. But a victory next week may also mark the end of an era
for George Mason, which has brought in only one top shooter
since Linn's death and will graduate four of its best in May.
``It's really important for us to win this last one for Coach
Linn,'' says senior Kelly Doll, one of the two women on the
George Mason team and a member of the U.S. junior Olympic team.
``For them to win it again next year would be a miracle.''
On the far range at Izaak Walton, five George Mason shooters are
spread out along a curved concrete sidewalk. Behind them stands
Kelly Doll's father, Charlie, who took over as coach the year
Linn died. Charlie, 56, holds a controller that releases clay
targets from a station 16 yards in front of the shooter in the
center of the sidewalk. When the shooter on the far left yells,
``Pull!'', Charlie presses a button that sends a target, or
bird, sailing toward a distant wall of evergreens at
approximately 60 miles per hour. The shooter has about 1 1/2
seconds in which to locate the target and fire at it with a
12-gauge shotgun. Then it's the next shooter's turn, and so on
down the line. The event is called the American trap, but when
these shooters get a good rhythm going, you would swear you were
listening to a rumba.
The windy conditions are no help today, and the team members'
scores are lower than their nearly perfect averages. ``I'm
nervous,'' says Lance Watkins, a senior. ``I don't want to be a
part of the team that loses the streak.''
Nevertheless, an air of levity at the practice has replaced the
clouds of grief and bitterness that persisted through the two
seasons following Linn's death. Charlie Doll, a former
Pennsylvania state trapshooting champion who applied for the
coaching position at the urging of some of the shooters, was
named coach in the fall of 1992. But his transition was
turbulent; arguments broke out among team members and with Doll
over the way the program was to be run. ``My dad's a different
type of coach than Coach Linn,'' Kelly Doll says. ``He's more
serious and businesslike, and that was hard to adjust to. It was
even hard for me, and I'm used to the way he is.''
Adding to the strife was the fact that Doll lives 90 miles away
in Hanover, Pa., where he owns a gun shop, and could be at
George Mason only one day a week. By early 1993, the situation
had worsened to such an extent that the school had a
psychologist meet with the team twice in two weeks and several
times with individual members.
``They just couldn't get over what they had with Coach Linn,''
says Charlie Doll. ``He was there every day, and they spent all
of their time with him. It really took a toll on them.
``I told them, `I'm not Coach Linn, and I can't be here every
day, which is a disadvantage. But this is the way things are.' ''
Of course, trying to step in for Linn would be like interrupting
Frank Sinatra in the middle of My Way and telling him you'll
take it from here. Linn, a former basketball coach and physical
education teacher at George Mason, was a nationally known
trapshooter who had been at the school since 1970.
``He was the type of guy who if you knew him for five minutes,
your life was better for it,'' says Scott Petitto, who graduated
in December 1993 but still practices with the team. Petitto,
unlike most of George Mason's shooters, who were top-ranked
juniors, learned to shoot in the class Linn taught at George
Mason. The class is no longer offered.
Linn's philosophy, which he detailed in a book called Finding
the Extra Target, centered on the mind's ability to control the
body. He taught his shooters to pick two elements of their
routine to concentrate on during competitions and attach a key
word or phrase to each. They were to repeat those words to
themselves--over and over--as they shot.
``There was something special about him that you couldn't figure
out until he was actually gone,'' Serdynski says. ``It was as if
he put positive thoughts into your head subconsciously.'' On
the day Linn died, Watkins was shooting in a trap tournament at
Izaak Walton. He rattled off 50 straight birds during his
warmup, then ran all 100 during the competition to win outright.
Afterward he punched out another 100 just to see if he would
miss. He didn't.
Though shooting is, by its nature, an individual sport, team
shooting requires a cohesiveness that takes practice and
concentration to achieve. Just as a track relay team must pass a
baton between runners, shooters pass an invisible baton to each
other as one person's turn becomes another's.
Because the April championships are the only event of the
collegiate shooting season, the approximately 40 competing
schools must be diligent in their workouts. Without Linn, George
Mason's players struggled. ``We lost the one thing that made us
unbeatable, and then we lost our camaraderie,'' Watkins says.
``We've gotten some of that back this year, but we're still
struggling to find our identity.''
George Mason's talent carried it to an eighth straight title in
'93, but the streak nearly came to an end at last year's
championships in El Rino, Okla. George Mason lagged so far
behind Texas A&M on the final day of competition that some of
George Mason's shooters actually congratulated the Aggies on
their victory as they headed back to the clubhouse. They didn't
learn they had won until the final results were posted on the
leader board half an hour later. George Mason had triumphed by
one bird, 1,934 to 1,933.
``I was like, `Oh, my god! You've got to be kidding,' '' says
Brian Travis, a junior. ``But sure enough, there we were -- on
top again. I thought, `Well, Coach Linn, we didn't let you down
after all.' ''
Linn recruited Travis from Brighton, Colo., but died two months
before he arrived at George Mason. ``I met him at a shoot when I
was 13,'' says Travis. ``He kept calling me every few weeks
until it was time for me to choose a college, so my decision was
After this year all of the shooters who competed under Linn will
be gone. Travis and Billy Straub, a sophomore, are the only top
shooters who will remain. Coach Doll, who is paid only a small
salary by the school to cover his expenses, is also leaving to
devote more time to running his gun shop.
``It's going to be really strange,'' Straub says. ``The people
that essentially brought me up on the team will be gone. But
sometimes change can be good.''
Officially, a successor to Doll has yet to be named, but Jim
Edwards, a volunteer assistant in his first year at George Mason
who has been recruiting throughout the country, is expected to
take over the team next year. ``If we can get some of the kids
I've talked to over here, we could be right back on track,''
says Edwards, 51, a veteran shooter who was an old friend of
But before that, there is a more immediate task at hand.
``This is the end of Coach Linn's legacy,'' says Serdynski. ``I
want to be able to say we went out a winner, the way he did.''