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World cornhole champions crowned in Rock Hill

For the third consecutive year, champion cornhole players have gathered in Rock Hill to determine who's the best.

Practice makes perfect, and there was lots of practice recently for the Cornhole World Championship, which was held at the Rock Hill Sports and Events Center the first week of August. The city has hung its economy largely on sports tourism, and its modern facilities have attracted athletes from around the country and world to compete in a wide range of sports.

This time, nearly 2,000 players from all over the United States and Canada came with hopes of fame and fortune for throwing 6-inch square bags filled with plastic pellets through a hole in a board a few yards away.

Mark Sexton of Rock Hill Parks, Recreation and Tourism noted cornhole’s remarkable growth over the past few decades. “It’s grown from us playing in our back yard for fun, to where now you have a USA cornhole team, and you have cornhole championships and you have pros, men and women, competing all over this country, and competing for big prize money.”

Big enough prize money to enable some professionals to make a living solely from playing cornhole. Sexton talked about what it takes to be a champion at the sport.

“The lay person like me will take it and try to hit the board. Or hopefully get one in the hole,” he said. “The pros aren’t doing that. It’s strategy. They’re trying to block their opponent. They easily can throw four bags in the hole if they want to. But let’s just say they miss one. They’re constantly thinking about how they’re gonna block their opponent to where they can’t get the scores that they need.”

Dusty Thompson, a cornhole pro who is also the American Cornhole League’s (ACL) director for the Carolinas, added that being a champion is more than just skill with a cornhole bag. “This isn’t just about how good you are. This is all about how well you do under pressure,” he said, pointing out that the game in a player’s head is as important as the physical aspect of cornhole.

“This is all about how well you can focus mentally,” said Thompson. “Because this game gets to where you’ve played it so long that you quit focusing, you just throw the bag. And these people that are throwing every day, they can get that bag memory to where they just do it automatically. But if you’re not doing it, then to throw the same shot every single time is very difficult. So you have to focus so much that it’s taking it to a different level, mentally.”

Mark Richards of Valparaiso, Indiana won the world men’s singles championship at the Rock Hill sport center on Aug. 7. Looking back on the competition, he said he had to pick his battles wisely to steer the game toward his style of play.

‘My game is very simple. I just wanted to throw every single bag in the hole, and occasionally throw an airmail or a wrap-around shot,” the new champion said, referring in cornhole lingo to a couple of fancy shots used in the game.

“But there’s other players in the league who will throw a carpet bag, which is a little bit of a slower bag that will stop on the board to create problems for their opponent. So when that happens you either have to push through a bag, you have to block behind the bag, you have to wrap around the bag, and it really creates that dirty style of game that the announcers on ESPN like to talk about.” (“Dirty,” meaning a more challenging and nuanced game, not that any of the players are violating the rules.)

The tournaments leading to and including the Rock Hill games also feature celebrity players. This year’s championships featured celebrity doubles matches with former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie and University of South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley, among others. Thompson said one former NFL quarterback found cornhole produced more pressure than pro football.

“Jay Cutler was on our Superhole match in Chicago,” said Thompson, adding that the former Chicago Bears quarterback said he’d played “multiple playoff games, he’s played regular season in the NFL, he’s never had the pressure that he’s had playing football that he had playing cornhole. I know that sounds crazy, but I actually believe he’s telling the truth,” when considering the mental stress the game can cause, Thompson said.

Richards revealed a bit of his training strategy for handling difficult shots, such as ones that are set up by wily opponents.

“When you’re practicing, put bags in front of the hole, make it challenging for yourself where you’re having to hit shots where you’re pushing through bags or going around bags,” so when it’s game time, “you’ve practiced those type of shots and you feel pretty confident you’ll be able to hit ‘em in a game.”

According to Sexton, the back yard and birthday party game many children grew up knowing as “bean bag” has grown as a sport because it appeals to just about everybody. “You may not be able to play football, basketball, baseball. Everybody can throw a cornhole bag,” he said. “And I think that’s the value of what cornhole brings.”

This is the third consecutive year the World Cornhole Championships have been held in Rock Hill and televised on ESPN. Sexton said the ACL was so impressed with the city’s facilities that it moved its national headquarters to Rock Hill, and he hopes that means the city and cornhole – and many other sports – will have a long and mutually beneficial relationship.

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Tut Underwood is producer of South Carolina Focus, a weekly news feature. A native of Alabama, Tut graduated from Auburn University with a BA in Speech Communication. He worked in radio in his hometown before moving to Columbia where he received a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina, and worked for local radio while pursuing his degree. He also worked in television. He was employed as a public information specialist for USC, and became Director of Public Information and Marketing for the South Carolina State Museum. His hobbies include reading, listening to music in a variety of styles and collecting movies and old time radio programs.