It was not long after Pro Doubles Champions Emory Parker and Matthew Sorrells walked off the stage at the 2019 ACL World Championships that everyone, including myself, began looking forward to a new season. Their legendary performance attempted to keep us cornhole nerds at bay, but by October we were ready for the new year. What was an explosion of growth in 2019 will turn into sustained intensity, excitement, and passion for the most competitive season of cornhole the world has ever seen. For those that are new to the ACL, the 2020 Johnsonville Cornhole Championships is a series of ACL National events that lead up to the 2020 ACL World Championships. There are four Nationals in the series: the Kickoff Battle in January, the Cornhole Mania in March, the Bag Brawl in May, and the Final Chase in July (full details are here). These four Nationals are open to the public for play, but exclusive Pro Division tournaments at each event showcase ACL Pros vying for National wins and $250,000 in guaranteed payouts. Similar to last season, ACL Pros will compete in Pro Doubles, a BYOP (bring-your-own-partner) style competition aimed at determining the best doubles team in the ACL. New this year, Pro Singles will also be featured throughout the season, allowing the ACL to crown its first ever Pro Singles World Champion. All the blockers, airmails, and bully bags that the 2020 Johnsonville Cornhole Championships have to offer will culminate to the grand finale of Pro Singles and Pro Doubles at the 2020 ACL World Championships.
As with every National last season, this season we will preview the three main events: Pro Singles, Pro Doubles, and Women's Doubles. Although women compete in the ACL Pro Division alongside men, the Women's Doubles Division of the ACL has a sole purpose of growing the sport among the female demographic by guaranteeing equal pay among males and females, while also promising television airtime at each National and World Championship. Each ACL National will have more than 16 different tournaments for all ages, skill levels, and demographics, but the three headliner events will be the focal point for previews, recaps, ESPN broadcasts, and ACL Digital Network broadcasts. Enough small talk, let's talk cornhole!
The 2020 Kickoff Battle marks the first ACL National of the season. For those living under a rock, the event is January 31st - February 2nd, 2020 at the Broward County Convention Center in Fort Lauderdale, FL. All singles and doubles events have sold out, meaning a minimum of over 600 unique players will throw it down in South Florida. This event will stream over 13 hours on the ACL Digital Network and feature 5 hours of ESPN network coverage. In addition to the usual tournaments offered at each National, there will also be a 1 hour ESPN special broadcast filmed Friday at 8 pm EST that will feature some of football's finest trying to keep up with some ACL Pros and Taste of the NFL Charity tournament winners.
This year is the second year of the Pro Doubles division. Naturally, it makes sense to look back at last year's top performers to get a gauge on this year's elite teams. However, ironically enough there are many top teams that swapped partners in the offseason, which makes this season that much more interesting. Starting with the familiar faces, I expect another strong year from Cody Henderson and Adam Hissner. These two remain the best sticky-bag team in the world, manipulating blocks and bully bags at the highest level possible. They finished 2019 2nd in Pro Doubles standings while also finishing 3rdd at the World Championships in August. Ryan Smith and James Washington will also be in the conversation for team of the year at the end. Ryan Smith is playing like the best player in the world, so it will be interesting to see the damage they do this season. If they expect to win a National this season, Washington will have to win the mental game. Unlike some players that fold under pressure, I think Washington plays some of his best games under the biggest pressure. The key will be remaining focused in the middle of tournaments enough to make it to the big stage.
The silent assassins of Brad Powers and Matthew Morton will also be back. Morton has been a trend-setter in the offseason, with multiple ACL Pros, including Timothy Pitcher and Ryan Smith, adopting his unorthodox follow through that led him and Powers to finish 2nd in the 2019 World Championships. Just like last year, I have all the faith in all aspects of Morton's game, what I'm wanting to see is consistency from Powers when it comes to dealing with messy rounds. Based on his bag flight, Powers sometimes struggles with tough pushes, but makes up for it most of the time with beautiful sneak-arounds and airmails. To get back to the top this season, Powers will have to have a complete arsenal of shots. Finally, the two veteran teams of Philip Haydon/Daymon Dennis and Sean Short/Jay Dotson will be exactly what they always are: consistent. Both teams have been around the game forever and had National wins in 2019 (Cornhole Mania for Dennis/Haydon and Final Chase for Dotson/Short) so they are used to the big stage and the pressure. The mental part of the game will not be a factor for them. If Short can limit his bags to the left and the right of the hole, and if Haydon can see consistency from his airmails when needed, both of these teams could finish top 10 again this year.
As I said in the opening, there were many shakeups and plenty of new faces that are emerging this season. The most notable breakup of course has to come from World Champions Matthew Sorrells and Emory Parker. Parker will match up with Scott Schultz in one of the most interesting pairings of the year. Schultz and Parker are foils when it comes to the mental side of the game. Schultz plays at a consistently high level, but often struggles in primetime to get a signature win. Parker, on the other hand, plays his worst early in events, but has ice in his veins once the big money is on the line. It will be interesting to see if who (or either) can overcome their personal downfall for the team. Matthew Sorrells, on the other hand, has moved onto Noah Wooten for the year. As a singles player, Wooten finished the year in the top 5 in 2019, highlighted by a 3rd place finish at the Bag Brawl. On paper, Sorrells and Wooten have no weaknesses. They can push, block, airmail, bully, slide, trick shot, you name it. The only possible thing that can limit these two is themselves. Although they are good friends, Sorrells is a big talker on the board, Wooten conversely is not. Both players will play with an over-the-top aggressive style which can sometimes be a problem in doubles. Will it be enough to hurt them? Who knows.
Derrick King and Jordan Camba also split in the offseason with King partnering with Trey Burchfield and Camba partnering with 2018 Singles World Champion James Baldwin. By the books, both of these teams should finish top 10. The question will be the chemistry. Since Camba and Baldwin both come from Virginia, they may have the slight edge due to their familiarity with each other. However, King and Burchfield may be playing more consistently at the moment. As far as shot selection goes, these two teams rival Wooten and Sorrells when it comes to not having really any weaknesses. Bag selection will be key for both teams, as a major part of the win at the 2019 Kickoff Battle by King and Camba was their mastery of the tacky bag. I expect King and Burchfield to go with a slightly tackier bag than Camba and Baldwin, but either way they will have to find their ideal fit as a team.
Unique to the 2019 season only, Pros were allowed to compete in Advanced Doubles as well, in 2020 they cannot. The good news is that the 2019 Advanced Doubles World Champions AJ Sims and Josh Groce will enter the year with forceful momentum and compete as a Pro team. Both players have unique bag flights, each with angled bags that make you wonder how they throw consistently. Groce had his best finish of the year at the Bag Brawl last season, finishing 2nd place in singles to Scott Lane who is questionable to compete this season due to a shoulder injury. Sims followed in Groce's footsteps with a top 10 singles finish of his own at the Final Chase to end the season. The chemistry between these two is off the charts so if they can be consistent with their slide shots and get in a rhythm, watch out for these two. Finally, a wildcard team to watch will be Kevin Rojas and Louie Vallejo Jr. Vallejo may be the best player out west and these two will be coming for the big wins this season. Technique will not be the determining factor for these two this season, it will be the intimidation factor and whether or not it plays a role. If these two can play with the confidence that they can win, I believe in them. What will be interesting is the first matchup for them against a top 5 team. If it happens in Florida, we could possibly learn a lot about these two in a short period of time.
Pro Singles is brand new to the Pro Division this season. All ACL Pros last season competed in Advanced Singles at Nationals, so unlike Pro Doubles, I believe looking at those results may give us the best opportunity looking forward to this year to predict winners. Singles is impossible to always accurately preview, as there are so many top players. Any of the players mentioned above could easily go on big runs in singles this season so that's why I'll try to limit my discussion of those players here (but no promises).
I think a top candidate for Pro Singles Player of the Year has to be Ryan Windsor. The thing that impresses me most about Windsor is the ability to get into a zone where he can hit 50 slide shots in a row. If I graded his push and airmail ability, it would be high, but honestly I wouldn't rank him top 5, perhaps even top 10, in either category. What he does excel at, however, is the ability to put slide shot after slide shot after slide shot in the hole. I once believed that if Matt Guy was 'in the zone' that no one could beat him. That all changed at the 2019 Cornhole Mania when Ryan Windsor put on arguably the best singles performance I've ever seen. His partner in doubles this season, Isidro Herrera, is another stone cold killer on the boards that has the innate ability to block out all noise. Just like any doubles team above could be considered in singles to win, I think Herrera and Windsor could be a deadly doubles team.
Eddie Grinderslev is another player that I think has a strong year in singles. A very rhythmic player, Grinderslev will knock a backside airmail so fast you don't even realize he threw the bag. I'm somewhat jealous of Austin, Texas because these two regularly put on shows in singles competitions. My one fear for Grinderslev late in tournaments is his ability to slow down when needed. This game can move so quickly and force you to rely on pace too much. Kyle Malone is another player who is hot at the moment, winning a few big tournaments in his home state of Florida. He and partner Dalton Mcklem put together a historic 22 game winning streak at the National level last season, but since then I've been worried about Mcklem's consistency. Malone is beating everyone right now and when he gets fearless with his airmail, he is a tough fire to put out.
Two new players to the Pro Division that have the ability to be ridiculous are Devon Harbaugh and Jamie Graham. You've heard me rattle on about how impressive Ryan Smith has been so far, well Devon Harbaugh gave him a game to remember at a recent regional in Pennsylvania. A 21-20 showdown shows that those two are throwing at the highest level. I was worried last year about Harbaugh being a little nervous in the big game, but this year with some more experience under his belt, I think he can be deadly, especially if he can get that roll shot of his working and using it smartly. Graham has one of the best arsenals in the sport, meaning he is crafty. While some pitchers in baseball can win with 3 pitches, there are some that can dominate with 5. Graham is one of those guys that has 5 different pitches and when he's rolling, he can pitch a perfect game. He has one of the best sneak-around shots in the game and he's coming off of a singles win in the special pro event at the 2019 NCCC.
Underdogs are always fun to watch and there's no better underdog out there than John Kitchin. This guy goes into the most brutal 16-man bracket in the history of cornhole and emerges as champion in the 2019 Devour Man of the Year tournament. He was special that week, and he did it in a way that was so underdog-esque. It wasn't fancy, not many big shots, he just found a way to win every game. Sometimes, the "find a way to win" factor is the key to success, and I think Kitchin embodies that. Another underdog that will make a splash is Tyler Parent. He's an underdog simply because because he's so green in the ACL, but soon people will remember his name. He describes his own play style as "smart" which everyone should know by now I love. Players who play smart in the underdog role tend to outperform other improving players.
Last, but certainly not least, we have Women's Doubles. Now, I know some of you are probably furious I didn't include any women in my pro preview. Deep Breath! There are more than a few women here in Women's Doubles that I believe will have great success in the Pro events, I'll make sure to point them out.
The top spot certainly has to go to Sam Finley and Cheyenne Renner, right? Finley is a current Women's World Champion and Renner is the next big cornhole superstar. Their talent alone could get them a title, but add great chemistry from regional and local events and you have a match made in heaven. They also have experience winning the important games, with Renner winning the Mixed Doubles title with Tanner Halbert in 2019 (by 21-0 score if I may add), and Finley of course winning the Women's Doubles title. The team that everyone expected to give them a great year of battling it out was Christine Papcke and Stacia Pugh. Unfortunately for both of them, Pugh's status at the moment is questionable for the season with some personal issues. That puts Papcke playing with Megan Maupin for now. Maupin is a fierce competitor as well, with plenty of fire power to get to the finals, but the lack of chemistry there in comparison to what Pugh would normally bring is alarming.
Another team that has plenty of experience to match Renner and Finley is Allison Heine and Courtney Coy. Coy won the women's singles title back in 2018, and Heine got her first finals appearance at the World Championships in 2019, playing with, ironically enough, Cheyenne Renner. Coy certainly has the skill to win. She's fearless and aggressive on the boards and there aren't many shots she can't make. The key for this team will be Heine's ability to stay in front of the hole. In games that Heine has won, she's controlled the front, with few bags off the board. Coy is a good enough teammate to put up big points, so if Heine can just simply prevent opponents from scoring, that may be enough to win.
Kerry Mittermiller and Brittany Emge are another all-ACL Pro team competing in Women's Doubles. Emge is coming off of a win at the 2019 NCCC and is red hot. These two had one of the most epic matches of the year back at the 2019 Cornhole Mania. If we can see that type of performance again, you'll be seeing these two on TV again this season. My one concern is the mental game of Mittermiller. She has plenty of talent to be a great player, but when adversity hits, sometimes she struggles to fight through and recover. If she can stay positive and have some short term memory, this team is successful. A new team that I like is Lori Dool and Jackie Sayasone. Sayasone is competing as an ACL Pro this season and Dool is coming off a 2nd place finish in the Landshark Co-Ed Cornhole Championship with Ricky Montez. I saw flashes of greatness from Dool in that event. Especially considering this event will be in her backyard, I expect her to defend her home turf well.
There are also some non-pro females that certainly have the talent to make it to a Women's Doubles Final. Tammy Williams and Tiffany Fincham have been there before (2019 Cornhole Mania), so that certainly tells you they can make it again. I think bag selection hurt Williams and Fincham in their first appearance so I'm interested to see what they go with this season. The quiet confidence from Williams and the big energy from Fincham makes this a surprisingly good match for partners. Finally, I have some high expectations for Kaylee Hunter and Allison Peters. Peters competed in the Landshark Co-Ed Cornhole Championship and I had an opportunity to watch Hunter in Mixed Doubles at the 2019 World Championships. Both of them can be streaky, in a good way. I've seen them both put together 3-4 perfect rounds in a row. For Hunter, she gains confidence from her push shot, so if she can establish consistency from that shot, Peters and Hunter can be deadly.
If there's anything that I can predict with 100% certainty, it's that this year's talent is going to blow the roof off of last year. As always, it's impossible to pick winners, but here I go trying it anyway.
Trey's Takes for the 2020 Kickoff Battle
Pro Singles - 1st - Ryan Windsor, 2nd - Ryan Smith, 3rd - Jamie Graham AND Devon Harbaugh
Pro Doubles - 1st - Wooten/Sorrells, 2nd - Sims/Groce, 3rd - King/Burchfield AND Camba/Baldwin
Women's Doubles - 1st - Renner/Finley, 2nd - Maupin/Papcke, 3rd - Coy/Heine AND Mittermiller/Emge
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