I learned something this weekend.
It was Friday night, day one of the 2020 Kickoff Battle and we had just concluded our ACL Digital Network coverage of Pro Doubles. In the 90 minute window used for setup of the Super Hole broadcast, I found myself just chatting with various players, jumping from group to group. It was then, that a group of about 10 people approached me asking for the location of their seats for the broadcast. Not a single one of them had any piece of cornhole clothing on. They were dressed...normally. As soon as I gave them the directions for check-in, they immediately told me how excited they were for their first ever cornhole event. They went on to explain that they had watched the ACL on TV and now that we were in town, they couldn't wait to watch us for the first time in person.
I was taken aback. Here was a group of 10 people in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on a Friday night deciding to spend their evening watching cornhole. Part of me rationalized it by telling myself it was only because of Sam Darnold and Daniel Jones. I convinced myself that they were only there to get within 50 feet of some professional quarterbacks. But, fast forward 24 hours and guess what? It happened again.
A group of college-aged guys, dressed ready to hit the town in Miami, strolled into the convention center, headed straight for the concession stand for a brew, and made their way to their pre-purchased VIP seats to watch the best players in the world, minus any additional flash or gimics, throw cornhole for 2.5 hours. It was at that moment that I realized what this sport is becoming. I can see the future of cornhole, and it is so bright. This game is no longer only about the players, it's now about the fans too. The momentum that the ACL has right now is exciting, and this weekend was just the beginning of the next segment of the journey.
In the words of Ed Orgeron, "We comin'".
The 2020 Kickoff Battle featured 710 unique players vying for over $69,000 (nice) in cash prizes. The three headliner events (Pro Doubles, Pro Singles, Women's Doubles) stole the spotlight in the 12+ hours of ACLDN and ESPN coverage, with the 2020 Super Hole event also turning some heads. If you want a full breakdown of results, you can check them out here. I really like to use the first National of the season as a teaching tool. This first event is the best predictor of what we will see for the rest of the season. Looking back at the 2019 Kickoff Battle, three out of the four Pro Doubles finalists made it to at least one other playoff (Sorrells/Parker, Geary/Price, Dennis/Haydon), the Women's Doubles champions went on to win two more Nationals (Papcke/Pugh), and two out of the four Advanced Singles finalists went on to win a National later in the year (Windsor and Baldwin). Therefore, the keys from this weekend may be the keys to the whole season.
We may be seeing the beginning of a Papcke/Maupin vs. Renner/Finley year-long battle
I thought that the Women's Doubles final was the best broadcast game that we had all weekend. I would pay good money to watch Cheyenne Renner and Megan Maupin throw like they did over and over again. Christine Papcke, who is normally a nervous Nelly, seemed the most calm I had ever seen her on the broadcast court. You could tell that she was comfortable with her game as well as her partner's. Although Stacia Pugh's play last year was relatively consistent, her decision-making and demeanor were not. Perhaps the consistent feeling of knowing exactly what you're getting from your partner put Papcke at ease. Regardless of Papcke's nerves, Maupin truly stole the show. As the lone non-pro on the board, Maupin displayed exactly why she earned (but didn't accept) a spot in the Pro Division this season. If not for a lack of commitment to travel, Maupin would certainly be a tough matchup for any male or female in the Pro Division this season.
Perhaps there may have been an element of underestimation of Papcke/Maupin by Renner/Finley. Renner and Finley hadn't lost a game all tournament, cruising through their finals match by a score of 21-0 over a red hot Kamryn Belvin (who also won Advanced Singles, becoming the first female to ever do so) and partner Melissa Loftin. Although Renner/Finley don't have the personalities that you'd expect to underestimate an opponent, perhaps there was a subconscious feeling that they were going to get the job done. Either way, Renner/Finley will be ready for the epic rematch that we hope to see in Cleveland whether it's on or off the broadcast court. Papcke/Maupin were able to go into Renner/Finley's home turf in Florida and win, now will Renner/Finley be able to go into Papcke's hometown of Cleveland and get the revenge? I can't wait to find out.
There's no longer a need for a 'token' non-East-Coast team/player, they're just as good
The (somewhat) surprise on the weekend had to be the performance of Blake Demale and Nick Renevitz. The duo won their respective winner's bracket in Pro Doubles, and came up just short in the finals to Jeremy Schermerhorn and Derek Singleton. Before that, Demale showed that he has the big shot ability, hitting multiple clutch shots for big points in crucial games. The wildcard player in Renevtiz showed that even though this is his first season as a Pro, he is ready to compete now and doesn't have to wait a season to feel like he belongs. Josh Groce was also in a similar position to Demale/Renevitz, winning his respective singles winner's bracket before coming up short twice to Ryan Windsor. Just like the 2019 Bag Brawl, Groce showed yet again that he is the wrong choice if you want to find a player to try and go bag-for-bag with. If not for an off-day with his airmail and some odd decisions with his curve bag, Groce could have certainly found a way to win one of the two finals games against Windsor.
We also had some completely new Pros that made a splash for the first time. Matthew Sorrells and Noah Wooten were the heavily favored team in all of Pro Doubles, but lost early to California's Tyler Parent and Brevon Valdivia, who showed the cornhole world that they could compete (and beat), the best teams that the ACL has to offer. The key for those two is now stringing together multiple of those wins and put together a full day of top level performances. Scott Eberly was also a star on day three, matching up with Cody Henderson in the Pro Blind Draw and finishing 2nd to Matthew Sorrells and Brandon Corwin. Eberly and Henderson lost their very first game in the event, but strung together victories against teams like Renner/Coy, Morse/Knapper, Smith/Mcklem, and Powers/Dinges. Eberly not only proved to himself that he could compete, but he proved to all of the other teams that said "who's that guy Cody is playing with?" that he is here to stay.
Jamie Graham and Ryan Windsor are really, really good
I'd say both of these players stole the show, more or less, in the Pro Division. Both players made the finals in Pro Singles, and both made the four-team playoff in Pro Doubles. Starting with Windsor, I really only saw him throw one bad round all day, coming in the winner's bracket final against Josh Groce where he threw the last bag of the game to stay alive short of the board. Other than that, his slide shot and push shot were deadly. Windsor even perfected his flop shot over the course of the day, using it multiple times in situations where an airmail was too risky to either score or prevent an airmail attempt by his opponent. In doubles, he seemed unbeatable until late in the finals match against Mcklem and Malone, and once that incredible team caught momentum, it was impossible to stop them.
As good as Windsor was, Graham just seemed to be just a tad bit more consistent, especially on Saturday. Specifically, I think Graham played an incredibly smart game throughout the whole weekend. In singles, he lost early to Daymon Dennis who was a flame thrower at the time. Eventually, he got his pink all-slides working and after that everyone else was history. A bag change to gamechangers in the doubles playoff (for obvious reasons with his partner being Frank Modlin) may have added just a touch of tackiness that perhaps threw him off his game in that match and gave him a slow start after switching back to all-slides for the singles final. But once Graham got the rhythm back, he was the best player in the building when he claimed the singles title.
Is this the year of the double dip?
As I looked back through the brackets, I certainly found my crazy stat of the weekend. Combining all three main events, there were a total of 10 featured brackets (four Pro Doubles, four Pro Singles, and two Women's Doubles). There was a double-dip in the finals (for those not familiar with my lingo, a double-dip is where the team coming out of the loser's bracket in a double-elimination tournament wins two straight games) in eight of those brackets, that's 80%! To add to that, the two teams that were not double dipped were Ryan Winsdor/Isidro Herrera in Pro Doubles and Cheyenne Renner/Sam Finley in Women's Doubles, neither of whom went on to win that particular event. With double-dip rates from last season being closer to 50%, this season has certainly started in a completely different direction.
Most of the double dips were rematches (Sorrells against Harbaugh, Graham against Dennis, Windsor against Groce, Mcklem/Malone against Dinges/Lucas Jr, Graham/Modlin against Baldwin/Camba, Schermerhorn/Singleton against Demale/Renevtiz) with only 25% coming from new matchups (Morton against Smith, Papcke/Maupin against Cupp/Woodell). Having said all of that, it truly makes you wonder that with such a high concentration of talent in the Pro Division this year if it's better to lose early, and continuously play game after game in the loser's bracket. Ryan Smith appeared to be the most dominant player of the day, defeating Dalton Mcklem 21-0 and then Eric Anderson 21-4 in back-to-back matches, but lost twice to Matthew Morton after finding a rhythm after an early loss to Scott Schultz. Schermerhorn and Singleton seemed to handle Demale and Renevtiz with ease in the finals after Demale was one of the hottest shooters on the main stage earlier in the event. Time will tell if this trend is simply an anomaly.
What an event it was! This Kickoff Battle has now doubled in size back-to-back years and sets an incredibly high bar for the 2020 Cornhole Mania. See you in Cleveland March 13th-15th!
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