2020. What a year. In my 26 years on this planet I have never experienced a year like this one. To say that this year has been a roller coaster would be the biggest understatement of my lifetime. Even when you look at 2020 in a cornhole lens, the year really has had incredible ups and downs. The year began on a high note with the Kickoff Battle, one of the most successful events in the history of the sport. Not two months later, the sport felt like it was crumbling down during the initial outbreak of COVID-19 that saw the cancellation of the Cornhole Mania. Then, we felt ourselves back on the upward trajectory as we put together the ACL Pro Invitational Qualifying Tour that ended up becoming an immense success. In the end, through all of wild and crazy turns of the 2020 Johnsonville Cornhole Championships, we find ourselves just days away from the 2020 ACL World Championships. The stakes are the highest they've ever been, and the talent will be off the charts.
You all know me by now and know that I like to have some fun with these event previews. I explore different formats that try to look at all of the major tournaments at an event. This time, I am feeling some bold predictions. Most of my predictions are related to the Pro Division, but I've kept a select few to highlight some of the top talent outside of the group of ACL Pros that we have this season. Before jumping into my predictions, I want to make sure all of you know the details. The 2020 ACL World Championships will be August 4th-9th at the Rock Hill Sports and Events Center in Rock Hill, SC. The week will be headlined by three ESPN television broadcasts: Wednesday 8/5 at 8 pm EST on ESPN2 for Man of the Year and Woman of the Year, Saturday 8/8 at 4 pm EST on ESPN for Pro Doubles and Co-Ed, and Sunday 8/9 at 12 pm EST on ESPN2 for Pro Singles and Women's Doubles. Now, without further adieu, here are some #treystakes bold predictions.
9 unique ACL Pros have won a singles event this season, Pro Singles at the Championships will make it 10
First, for reference, the 9 singles winners on the year are Jamie Graham, Matthew Morton, Eddie Grinderslev, Greg Geary, Grant Upchurch, Ryan Windsor, Leston Allen, Cody Henderson, and Noah Wooten. Of all the stats that can showcase how cornhole can really be "anyone can play, anyone can win", this one has to be it. Even when some players just seem too good to be taken down, new players seem to emerge each event and are the ones to take home the title. This prediction is about as bold as it gets, so let's first look out how it can be proven wrong. The top two contenders have to be Jamie Graham and Ryan Windsor. At different points this season, I personally deemed both of them "unbeatable". Graham's singles finishes include 1st at the Kickoff Battle, 2nd at the Rock Hill Pro Invitational Qualifier, 3rd at the Erie Pro Invitational Qualifier, and 2nd at the Final Chase. Really, the only place I saw Graham be human was back in Erie where he got beat up pretty good by Cody Henderson, another one of these 9 winners. Other than that, the only times he lost were when his opponent had a legendary performance (see Morton at the Rock Hill Qualifier and Wooten at the Final Chase). Windsor has also experienced a very similar road to the Championships. He placed 2nd at the Kickoff Battle, 1st at the South Bend Pro Invitational Qualifier, 3rd at the Erie Pro Invitational Qualifier, and 3rd at the Final Chase. Again, he was human in Erie, where Adam Hissner took full advantage of the dip in performance, but elsewhere required elite performances to be eliminated (see Graham at the Kickoff Battle and Wooten at the Final Chase).
The next two players that have the second-best opportunity to prove this prediction wrong are Matthew Morton and Noah Wooten. I put these two in a tier just below Graham and Windsor. The reason for that is that while their best performances rivaled Windsor's and Graham's (and actually bested theirs), both Wooten and Morton had a performance or two that was more "good" than "great". Morton's single down performance came at the Final Chase where he was defeated by Justin Stranger and Matthew Sorrells to finish 9th in his bracket. Is that a bad performance? Absolutely not, but when you're trying to compare the absolute best in the sport where the margins are razor thin, that's the small blemish on the resume. Wooten had two "good" not "great" performances. First at the Kickoff Battle he finished 5th in his bracket suffering losses to Matthew Sorrells and Timothy Pitcher. In Rock Hill at the first Qualifier, Wooten lost to Graham, but it wasn't really close. So, again, nothing is necessarily disappointing about any of those losses. For Morton, the key for me is going to be staying straight. The airmail will always be there for him. He throws a high enough bag that blocking is never an issue and the airmail is always going to be >50% and when he's feeling it >80%. He just needs to avoid placing bumper bags on the left and right of the hole for his opponents. For Wooten, I think the key will be board conditions. If the boards get a little tacky like they were at the Final Chase, he is going to be nearly impossible to beat. Those conditions at least give him the option for the flop and roll shots. If the boards play fast like they did at the Rock Hill Pro Qualifier (same exact location), then that removes a shot from Wooten's arsenal that could play a factor in the win.
Now that I've gone over how I could be wrong, let's talk about how I could be right. Here, I'm specifically going to be looking for someone who had a dominating performance at one point, but for some reason they just couldn't cross the finish line. First, recency bias has to point me to James Baldwin. I mean, c'mon, the guy hit 38 out of 40 bags to close out the Pro Invitational. Has he struggled this season at times? Absolutely. But that rhythm that I saw Baldwin in during the Pro Invitational isn't something I've seen since 2018 when he was the Pro Singles World Champion. Jay Rubin is another contender that I think can make the breakthrough. His 3 best finishes on the season are 3rd in his bracket or better, and he had to be eliminated by Windsor at the Final Chase before finally slowing down. He's smooth and consistent, but more importantly I think Rubin does an amazing job at staying level-headed which I think is the most undervalued trait a cornhole player can have. Ryan Smith is still probably salty after losing to Jay Rubin at the Final Chase after being up 20-10 with a shot to win. He is another player that at times this season has looked like a world-beater, but has yet to finish. He got double dipped by Morton back at the Kickoff Battle and missed multiple shots to win against Scott Schultz back in Wilmington that I expected him to hit. The list of possible contenders at the high level is long, but other names I'm looking to make me look smart include Daymon Dennis, Derrick King, Adam Hissner, Trey Burchfield, Timothy Pitcher, Eric Anderson, Kyle Malone, and Dalton Mcklem.
Kyle Malone and Dalton Mcklem either win the World Championship to complete the sweep OR lose out on Team of the Year
To properly break down how bold this is you have to look at both qualifying statements. First, Malone and Mcklem win the World Championship. That's pretty straight forward, but given the talent pool I think everyone can agree with me that if these two can win these three events within the same season it's the most impressive season for a doubles team in the history of the sport. Now, the second half of the statement is also very bold. In unextreme circumstances, there is really just one team that could catch Malone and Mckelm for team of the year and that is Greg Geary and Jimmy McGuffin. Geary and McGuffin have to finish just 1 spot ahead of McKlem and Malone to steal the Team of the Year crown. Since the World Championships count no matter what in Pro Doubles Standings (it can't be dropped as a lowest score), the even more unlikely scenario is that Malone and Mcklem go out of the tournament early, and another top 5 team takes the whole tournament down and makes up for the currently quite large point differential between them and Malone and Mcklem. Do I think this will happen? Eh, it's quite unlikely, but anything is possible.
Let's talk through that scenario a little bit more (plus it gives me some time to preview some other great teams). Part 1 is that Malone and Mcklem have to have by far their worst performance of the season. If this was a 10-round limited tournament, the chances certainly would be higher given that this dynamic duo got eliminated in South Bend in the 10th round by Chad Mayberry and Christine Papcke. However, we are playing to 21 here so the cards heavily fall in favor of the Floridian powerhouse. If I had to envision a scenario where these two would struggle, maybe it's in a scenario that feature extreme board conditions either way. Malone and Mcklem play some great strategy and often times will work with blocks and timely airmails and pushes to outwit opponents. In severely tacky conditions, I'd wonder if their great push shots are taken away. In lightning-fast conditions, the cerebral elements of the game are lessened, which works against their favor.
In the event of an unlikely collapse by the team in prime position to become Team of the Year, let's look at the other teams that may have a shot to make some noise and possibly take down the #1 spot. First, the team of Frank Modlin and Jamie Graham has to be under consideration. This team sat atop the rankings most of the season after a win at the first Pro Invitational Qualifier in Rock Hill (mostly because Malone and Mcklem were a tournament behind until the Final Chase), so they know what it's like to play with a target on their backs. This team is 32 points behind, which means the most likely scenario for this team becoming Team of the Year is winning the Pro Doubles title and hoping Malone and McKlem finish worse than 2nd. Those bonus points count for a lot (20 points each win in doubles in 4 team playoff bracket), so attempting to finish 32 points ahead of a team without getting any of the playoff bonus points is unlikely as the difference between 1st and 2nd in a bracket is only 8 points. Graham and Modlin's first strength is that they will be heading back to the same facility where they got their only win on the season. The familiarity with the Rock Hill facility will only provide confidence. The question mark for me comes with Frank Modlin's health. He proved to me at the Final Chase that he is "back" as far as his performance goes, but his change in form due to his hip problems absolutely causes me to think twice. For his sake, I hope he is able to compete all week pain-free, but keep in mind that the World Championships are double the length of a normal National event, which only opens up the door for more pain for Frank. Keep an eye on his health. Another top 5 team to watch is Pro Invitational Champions Jordan Camba and James Baldwin. The most intriguing aspect of this duo is that in their two wins on the season, one partner carried the other. In Wilmington, Baldwin struggled aside from the very last few frames of the finals against Allan Rockwell and Matthew Stout. Aside from that, Camba completely carried the team to a victory. At the Pro Invitational, I believe the complete inverse was true. Baldwin was the one on fire who was able to hold it down for the win. Given that this team is exactly 40 points behind, they essentially need to win and hope that Mcklem and Malone do not win their bracket. Any other scenario is quite unlikely.
The last team that has a non-extreme chance at the Team of the Year is Derrick King and Trey Burchfield, who are also 40 points behind in the standings. At times, I think these two have been the best team in the country. At the South Bend Pro Invitational Qualifier and during the first 75% of the Rock Hill Pro Invitational Qualifier, I remember watching Burchfield and King and thinking that no one was going to come close to beating them. The difference between then and the very end of the Final Chase and the Pro Invitational was the performance of Trey Burchfield. For the first time really, I saw the quiet confidence of Burchfield fade. After seeing how locked in Derrick King was on Friday night at the final chase coming in 3rd overall in singles after double dipping Greg Geary, I thought those two would be difficult to beat in both doubles events. However, towards the end of both tournaments, I saw some shaky play by Burchfield, nothing like what I saw in South Bend. If Burchfield can get some confidence back and get back to firing those bags at will, I look for these two to at least have a shot at Team of the Year and the World Doubles Title.
A Non-Pro Wins at least a portion of the Women's Doubles or Co-Ed Title
This prediction certainly raises some eyebrows but to be honest, I think it is the least bold of my predictions. There are so many great female players out there, and many of them just either lack the time or the ability to travel to compete regularly on the ACL Pro circuit. Women like 2019 Women's Singles World Champion Kamryn Belvin would easily compete in the ACL Pro Division, but just haven't chosen to join the ACL Pro ranks. Speaking of Belvin, she will certainly make a push in both events listed above, first playing in the Co-Ed event with Frank Modlin. Those personalities mesh very well, so I expect those two to make a deep run. Belvin is also competing in Women's Doubles with Melissa Loftin. Those two finished in 3rd place in Women's Doubles back at the Kickoff Battle in Florida. I think the nerves possibly got to Loftin in that play-in match to get into the finals. Now that Loftin has that experience under her belt, I look for these two to make another run. Tammy Williams and Tiffany Fincham are always an energetic and entertaining duo to watch. Williams will be playing Co-Ed with Michael Lucas Jr which I love considering they got the signature win together already at the USA Club Championships back in June. Fincham will be playing with her husband Jaime Fincham and after chatting with her a bit, her and Jaime are "going to try really hard! Going HAM!" If that doesn't describe her personality, I don't know what will.
The list of females I can't wait to watch really could be endless here. Allison Peters is one female that is also competing in the ACL Pro Qualifier that has superstar potential. She'll be competing in Co-Ed with Pro Tyler Poythress and, to be honest, I think Poythress has all of the pressure on his end to deliver some top level play. Kaylee Hunter is a slinger herself, she will be played Co-Ed with Jamie Graham, so if the board conditions can suit Hunter's hard-throwing style, those two will also compete at the highest level. And finally, anytime you're talking about a World Champion, you have to expect them to deliver at the highest level. 2019 ACL World Singles Champion Tanner Halbert will be competing alongside Katherine Kennedy in Co-Ed. If I was seeding teams in that event, they'd be a top 5 seed no question. Also remember that Halbert is also the reigning champion of this event, competing with Cheyenne Renner last season. So, if Kennedy can play like Renner did last season, there's no reason those two can't be there at the end. Kennedy is also competing in Women's Doubles with Paula Stevens. That team will certainly be a wildcard as not many players will know what to expect. Stevens is mostly new to the ACL circuit, so that should play to her advantage as many may not take her seriously enough until it is too late.
But, of course, there's a strong chance I'm wrong with that prediction. There are plenty of "super teams", if you will, among these divisions featuring the ladies. The immediate one that jumps to mind is Derrick King and Sam Finley. If both of those two are on fire, better watch out! Finley is also competing with Allison Peters in Women's Doubles, so you already know I like this team. James Baldwin and Allison Heine will be teaming up for obvious reasons. Heine, I think, has the ability to have a sneaky good week. I had a chance to watch her at the Final Chase for a couple games and although she was a bit streaky, her low points were 7s and 8s instead of 4s and 5s. If both of her partners (Baldwin and Courtney Coy for Women's Doubles) can throw to their potential, Heine may just have a repeat of the 2019 ACL World Championships where she was one of the last 4 women playing on the whole week, finishing 2nd with Cheyenne Renner. Blake Demale and Jackie Sayasone will also be a fun combo to watch, mostly because both players are generally viewed by the public as "above-average to good" Pros. When you think of a Champion of the entire Pro Division, you don't necessarily think of either of these two individually, but as a team, they could come together and be one of the best teams in the event because I think the chemistry will be, for a lack of a better word, fun. Sayasone will pair up with the same partner she had at the Kickoff Battle, Lori Dool, where the duo was literally one bag away from making the last 4 of Women's Doubles. Now that Dool and Sayasone have the experience, I expect them to come with the mentality of "we've been here before". And finally, you have to include the only two time winner in women's doubles this season, Christine Papcke who is playing this year with Brandon Corwin. Papcke has played the last few seasons with Adam Hissner, and bag selection in recent seasons was always an issue. Now playing with Corwin, I think both players will be comfortable with any bag selection and have a good chance to get the job done. We also, finally, get to see the reunion of Papcke and Women's Doubles partner Megan Maupin. Those two stole the show at the Kickoff Battle but haven't been able to link up because of COVID-19. Now that they can finally get back together, let's see if these two will be Maupin' the floor with the rest of the competition.
1st - Ryan Windsor (does this contradict my bold prediction? Yes)
2nd - James Baldwin
3rd - Jamie Graham
3rd - Timothy Pitcher (gasp)
1st - Kyle Malone and Dalton Mcklem (back to following bold predictions)
2nd - Jordan Camba and James Baldwin
3rd - Matthew Sorrells and Noah Wooten
3rd - Ryan Windsor/Isidro Herrera
Man of the Year
Woman of the Year
1st - Megan Maupin/Christine Papcke
2nd - Sam Finley/Allison Peters
1st - Frank Modlin/Kamryn Belvin
2nd - Sam Finley/Derrick King
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