I couldn't even wait a day to start writing about the 2019 ACL Cornhole Mania. I'm sitting here in the Atlanta airport waiting for a connecting flight and reminiscing on what was truly an unbelievable success. The word 'unbelievable' is so often used in hyperbole, but in describing this event the word can't be exaggerated. Just twelve months ago we were leaving Las Vegas after the 2018 ACL Cornhole Mania ecstatic with our 180 person event awarding $15,000 in cash prizes. At the time, it was our most successful event to date and it brought so much excitement and hope to the game of cornhole. Fast forwarding one year later, we are leaving the city of The Arch after awarding $60,000+ in cash prizes and organizing a seamless event for close to 800 players, not to mention the 24+ hours of ACL Digital Network coverage and the 5 hours of ESPN broadcasts.
On my first flight home I sat across the aisle from Jay Corley who was proudly carrying his and partner Tyler Poythress' trophies from their Advanced Doubles win. He got a good laugh from the passengers around us after the flight attendant told him he could not buckle-in his trophies in the empty seat beside him and would have to stow them in the overhead compartment. His response was "Oh c'mon, you know how hard I've worked for these?! I need to make sure they're safe". I chuckled along with the crowd but what he said was true. We have worked so hard for this. The ACL family has been training days, nights, and weekends for years for this type of opportunity, the type of opportunity that shows off the best cornhole players in the country in a positive light with national exposure. The type of opportunity to bring people of all different walks of life together under one roof to push aside differences to compete in a game that they love. I mean, where else are you going to see staunch liberal ACL Pro Scott Phillips and proud conservative ACL Pro Lester Price getting along, shaking hands, and having a few beers together? The players have trained, waited, and hoped for the sport that they love to reach these heights while giving them an opportunity to become professional athletes like the ones they adore on TV (well, close enough). The staff have trained, waited, and hoped to build an infrastructure that promotes growth in a sport that brings such happiness to this ACL family. Even I have trained, waited, and hoped for such an event that would leave me exhausted and sleep deprived but knowing with 100% certainty that the best is yet to come.
Well, enough of the sappy stuff. There were so many things that impressed me this weekend. With so much talent under one roof, we were bound to experience some of the best games of our short history. There were so many events all weekend, but I'm just going to stick to the four headliners for now.
My only pick of the weekend that won! My pick here was far from daring but Christine Papcke and Stacia Pugh played incredibly...as anticipated. They had to play the second and third best teams in their bracket and beat them both. Some of their wins were dominating, and some were nail-biters. The one constant in Papcke/Pugh all weekend was winning. It didn't matter if it took slide bag volleys, or timely clutch airmails, the ACL Pros got the job done. I could write plenty about their impressive performance but I really want to highlight the new faces that I saw in Women's Doubles; specifically, those two teams that attempted to stand in the way of Pugh and Papcke raised some eyebrows. First, you had the team of Brittany Koenig and Jessica Dover. These two ladies had never played a single tournament together before and went on an incredible run through the tournament. Candidly, the two of them told me they used to be bitter rivals in their region, but put aside their differences to see if they could compete with the top teams in the country. I think it's safe to say the rivalry has turned into an alliance. These two breezed through the tournament up until they ran into the other team that really impressed me this weekend, Brittany Emge and ACL Pro Kerry Mittermiller.
Stacia Pugh herself was "angry" with how well Mittermiller played, as the two know each other quite well and play often. Although Mittermiller didn't attempt many airmails, her slide, block, and push game were consistent and relentless. It also helped to have the single biggest eye-opening player from the weekend on the other end of the board. Time and time again, Emge blew me away. On the weekend, she had three different ridiculous shots to stay alive. Each time I doubted her (not because of her ability, but simply based on the statistical probabilities of each shot) and each time she came through with a jaw-dropping performance. I've seen plenty of incredible performances over the past nine years in cornhole, but never has an individual surprised me in a positive way as much as Emge did. What I expected to see from Emge and what I saw from Emge were two completely different sights. Honorable mentions to my shoutouts have to go to both Megan Maupin/Courtney Baird and Tammy Williams/Tiffany Fincham, who all made appearances on ESPN networks this weekend. Both teams come from proud areas of Northeast TN and Virginia, respectively, so I know they made many proud.
It looks like Adam Hissner and Cody Henderson finally decided to show up in a big way this season. They had a dominating performance against Lester Price and Greg Geary to the point that I didn't expect them to give up much in the final game. The problem was Adam Hissner gave the kiss of death with his "no one wants to play us" line in the post-match interview. Although I personally loved the quote, I think Hissner and Henderson perhaps forgot that Daymon Dennis and Philip Haydon were still in the tournament. Haydon and Dennis are unbelievable competitors. No matter the tournament, stakes, or conditions, these two just win games. Even after suffering a loss earlier in the day, these two fought through their loser's bracket and eventually won two straight against Trey Burchfield and Brandon Corwin. The two have such great chemistry, it's truly remarkable. At one point in the back-to-back wins against Corwin/Burchfield, Daymon Dennis was conflicted between a tough slide-around shot that could easily end off the board and simply settling for a board shot. Dennis wanted the simple board shot, but Haydon (with a little bit of fire) shouted down to his partner to "just listen to me and put the bag in the hole". There shouldn't be any surprised that Dennis followed up the exchange with a perfectly executed slide-around to earn a crucial two points late in the game. "Told ya" was the only further words exchanged by the Kentucky duo that game.
There were plenty of other impressive performances on the day, too. Eric Weathers and Josh Groce could not be any closer to winning a big tournament without actually winning one. They had two different opportunities to prevent Greg Geary and Lester Price from making yet another ESPN appearance but could not make it happen. They seemed to glide past all other opponents that day but just couldn't figure Geary and Price out (in fairness, not many have). Of course you also had Stacia Pugh and Chuckie Love who also came up one game short to Emory Parker and Matthew Sorrells. Pugh would have been the first female to make an ACL Pro Doubles semifinal, but Sorrells and Parker just continue to be the masters of bag manipulation. Between Sorrells' arsenal of shots and Parker's airmailing ability, the two are going to be tough to beat the rest of the season.
As I said, I sat next to Jay Corley on the plane and he was all smiles the entire flight. When I bumped into Corley during he and Poythress' incredible run, I asked him what he was doing to make such an improvement over the past 12 months. Just over a year ago, Corley was apart of the famous "Big 4" of Jamie Graham, Trevor Brooks, Tyler Poythress, and Jay Corley and I bluntly told him this weekend that back then, he was #4 out of 4. Now? He's a top ten, possibly top five player in the country. Corley plainly told me "that's what happens when you play [ACL Pro] Jordan Camba a lot". Poythress and Corley joined Matt Guy, Ryan Windsor, Matthew Sorrells, and Emory Parker as the most dominant players on the weekend, making the semifinals in at least two different events.
Two other teams that deserved some highlight reel attention were Shawn Anderson/Rob Guthary and ACL Pros Curtis Kearns/Trae Kelly. Anderson and Guthary were outrageous on airmails all weekend. Even in their last game of the day in which they lost, I thought they actually outplayed Matt and Bret Guy. They had some uncharacteristic mistakes late in the game that cost them the match but the fact that Rob Guthary had six four-baggers in that one match should tell you that he was in the zone. In another bracket, Kearns and Kelly were breaking hearts and hurting feelings all day long. I can't tell you how many times I was watching the bracket and said to myself "Kearns/Kelly beat ______ too?!" That's not an insult to them as a team, but more so a testament to the caliber of talent that they sent packing throughout the tournament. In the losers bracket alone, Kearns/Kelly defeated Michael Lucas Jr/Michael Dinges, Stephen Bolen/Noah Wooten, Trey Burchfield/Brandon Corwin, Adam Hissner/Cody Henderson, and Eric Weathers/Josh Groce...are you kidding me?!
The last event of the weekend may not have had a surprising ending, but there were certainly some intriguing performances. The day belonged to Ryan Windsor, there's no doubting that. I often used to say that when Matt Guy was in his zone, he was unbeatable. It wasn't as if Guy was always unbeatable, because sometimes he just wasn't in his zone. But when Guy was feeling good, I genuinely thought he was unbeatable. Well, that theory was debunked this weekend when Windsor defeated an "in-the-zone" Matt Guy in the semifinals. I lost count at how many 15/16 bag streaks we had throughout that one game that ended in a 21-20 victory for Windsor. I give ACL Pro Trey Burchfield an enormous amount of credit in the finals trying to force Windsor into a different style of play. Burchfield had executed such a great block-then-airmail game all weekend long, he came (relatively) close to a similar performance against Windsor, but Windsor was just too tough.
At the top of the list for surprises has to be Dustin Butler. Butler was certainly under the radar and widely unknown nationally coming into the weekend, but plenty of people know him after leaving. Butler only lost two games all day, both to Windsor, but delivered losses to Jay Corley, Chuckie Love, Daniel Resureccion (a great West Coast player that had a successful first ACL National appearance), and Courtney Coy. Another player that (finally) was able to live up to some steep expectations from me was ACL Pro Scott Phillips. Phillips started the day 4-0 and ended 5th in his bracket. Phillips also finished third in the Advanced Blind Draw with Thomas Tuttle so the Northwest Conference gets some recognition by way of its shining star in Phillips.
Can we leave for Arizona now? Well, maybe after a nap.
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