It. Is. TIME! The first ACL National event of the season is here, and I am pumped up. We've been saying it for months now, but now it's time to prove that this year's pool of talent within the ACL Pro Division is by far the best it's ever been thanks to the best ACL rookie class ever. There are so many storylines to hit on before this first event, as well as so many players. Now that the division has 256 ACL Pros, trying to predict who emerges out of this stacked field becomes essentially impossible...but that doesn't mean I won't try.
First, let's cover the basics. The 2021 ACL Kickoff Battle is the first of four ACL National events throughout the 2021 Johnsonville Cornhole Championships (ACL Cornhole Mania, ACL Bag Brawl, and ACL Final Chase are the others). Since the introduction of ACL Open events has provided opportunities for the general public to compete against top players across the country, ACL Nationals have been migrated to ACL Pro-only events, with the ultimate goal of making them spectator-centric events in a post-COVID-19 world. This 2021 ACL Kickoff Battle will be February 5-7, 2021, in Winter Haven, FL, at the AdventHealth Fieldhouse and Conference Center, a beautiful, brand-new facility just outside of Tampa. For this preview, I want to highlight all of the emotions I have towards groups of players. Many of you will follow my feelings towards these players, and others will strongly disagree. Either way, let's talk ACL Pros!
Players I am Excited About
It's really no surprise who is first on my list here. The winningest ACL player of all time is entering his first season as an ACL Pro and somehow everyone is still glued to the edge of their seat waiting to see how he will finish in his first event in the ACL Pro Division. Yes, like everyone else, I could not be more excited to watch Matt Guy compete in this event. For the past few years, he has had to listen to the haters tell him he used to be a great player, but there's no way he could hang with the new age of talent that has taken over the ACL Pro Division. Being the mental grinder that Guy is, I just know he's been waiting for this moment for 3 years. Guy started his first season as an ACL Pro on a high note, winning singles at the ACL Open in Myrtle Beach back in December. I particularly enjoyed checking out Guy's statistics in the loser's bracket semifinal of his bracket at the Open against ACL Pro Matthew Stout, where Guy missed 1 bag the entire game and finished with an 11.80 average round score, a dominating performance. But like we all know, putting every bag in the hole isn't the only way Guy can win. In the bracket finals against Josh Holland, Guy surrendered a 9-0 lead early in the match but went on a 17-0 run and eventually won the game in convincing fashion. Guy knows how to win, he's seen every situation before, and I can't wait to see him in his first Pro National.
The next pair of players should be no surprise either. Trey Burchfield and Derrick King each began the 2020 season without a partner, and left it together as Pro Doubles World Champions. That, in itself, is a classic storyline that I won't soon forget. Trey Burchfield has confirmed to the world that he is, in fact, a robot. After Erick Davis went completely undefeated over two days of play at the USA Cornhole National Championships, Burchfield proved to be the antitdote against Davis' lethal roll shot that had plagued so many competitors throughout the weekend. Burchfield's no-hesitation airmail following a block shot isn't something you see often, but when you do, you see it from elite players like Jimmy McGuffin and Matt Guy. I am all-in on Trey Burchfield and think he is the best player in the world right now. The question is...well I don't know what the question is...Burchfield is ridiculous. His partner on the other end in doubles, Derrick King, isn't too bad either. King and Burchfield won doubles at that same Open in Myrtle Beach that Guy emerged victorious in Singles, but King also had a strong finish in singles. In his last loss of the event against Matt Guy, King averaged a 10.53 round score. A LOSS. How do you throw 9 4-baggers in a match and lose by 8? Anyways, my point is that King and Burchfield aren't showing any signs of winning fatigue, so I expect them to keep the same form that they had in Open Doubles at the 2020 National College Cornhole Championship where they throttled Jamie Graham and Erick Davis 22-1 in the final match.
There's a number of other players that you should be excited to see how they finish. Matthew Sorrells and Noah Wooten enter their second year together as a team, this year with certainly less pressure than last year which bodes well for their mentality entering the season. Kamryn Belvin, to me, poses the strongest potential we've seen yet in the Pro Division for a female to qualify for a playoff in either singles or doubles. Ryan Windsor is revamped and ready for a new season, certainly angered by his slew of second and third runner-ups at various events last season (2020 Kickoff Battle Singles, Erie Pro Invitational Qualifier Singles, World Championships Pro Doubles, USA Cornhole National Championships Co-Ed Doubles). My old-school cornhole brain can't help but to be excited to see Jordan Langworthy back in the hunt for a World Championship, trying to relive the 2017 Cinderella story where he took down Matt Guy in an instant classic. Finally, I am ready to see AJ Sims be a superstar. For the past two years, he's had to see the guys around him (Josh Groce and Eddie Grinderslev) in Texas emerge as stars within the league, but this year is his to be the leader of the Southwest Conference, even when newcomers like Kaleb Batson look to be on the forefront of everyone's mind; Sims showed flashes of brilliance in his run at the Pro Singles World Championship back in August, where he gave Jamie Graham his toughest game of the tournament.
Players I am Concerned About
This section is certainly tougher to talk about, but there are a number of players that are coming in with a ton of hype, but something is possibly holding them back. The first group to talk about here is centered all around bags. The two biggest names to be concerned about have to be Jamie Graham and Erick Davis. Although neither would publicly come out and say it, there has certainly been some inconsistency in their play after switching bags (Davis from Reynolds to Fire and Graham from AllCornhole to Fire). I think in Graham's case, he will eventually figure it out after having some additional time to practice with and break in the new bags. For this first event though, it's definitely something to keep an eye on as Graham was so dominant last season with both Gamechangers and All-Slides. Davis, on the other hand, is a much more interesting case. Davis' game is so reliant on that consistent block and roll game. That part of his game has been lacking since the switch in bags, especially on slick board conditions. With the ACL developing a new ACL Pro Board for this season, it will be interesting to see how Davis is able to handle the conditions. I expect the new boards to play relatively fast, but not as fast as what we saw at the World Championships this past August.
For similar reasons, I'm a little concerned about Tony Smith and Devon Harbaugh. Both players rely heavily on broken-in bags to execute their flops and rolls. Given that all Pros now have to switch over to the newer licensed bags with the new 2021 ACL Bag Policy, I am worried about their ability to execute their best shots with different bags than what they may have been using the past two years. Another reason to be concerned for a player is for health reasons. Eric Anderson exploded onto the scene last season, getting himself into the top 10 in the rankings, and my expectations for him this season are even higher. He is a player that has every shot in the arsenal, but has recently been battling some injuries that have prevented him from playing to his potential. He and new partner Timmy Jonas did not play as well as I thought they would at the most recent Mid East Conference event, so my concern level entering this first National is high for a team with pretty substantial expectations for the season.
Players I am Clueless About
There are plenty of players that you know what you're going to get, if you know what I mean. Jimmy McGuffin is going to hit airmails, James Baldwin and Jordan Camba will be clutch, Daymon Dennis will methodically break his opponents down, and Cody Henderson and Adam Hissner will win the mental game against everyone else except maybe Jay Dotson and Sean Short. However, there are a few people that have huge question marks going into this event. Greg Collins is one of those players for me. Over the past month, he has beaten Trey Burchfield in singles...twice. Excuse me, what? Is this guy for real? It sure seems like it. Surprisingly I'm also intrigued to watch a healthy and pressure-free Frank Modlin compete. I really think last year he felt so much pressure playing with Jamie Graham that he is looking to have a breakout finish. On the women's side, how will newcomers and highly anticipated players like Sarah Cassidy and Allison Peters perform? They could win everything and it wouldn't surprise me, but will they? Steven Bernacet is another player who already swept an ACL Open event so you have to think he is ready to win at the highest level...right? There's also a list of brand new rookies this year that have incredible talent, but the main obstacle will be the mental game: Duncan Clemmer, Eian Cripps, Tucker Stills, and Jacob Beamer.
All I can say is...let's do this!
1st - Trey Burchfield
2nd - Matt Guy
t-3rd - Ryan Windsor
t-3rd - Daymon Dennis
1st - Trey Burchfield/Derrick King
2nd - Greg Geary/Jimmy McGuffin
t-3rd - Jamie Graham/Matt Guy
t-3rd - Noah Wooten/Matthew Sorrells
1st - Samantha Finley/Rosie Streker
2nd - Cheyenne Renner/Sarah Cassidy
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