Pitch it

The Athlete Next Door | July 2017

 

By Mandy Wolf Detwiler | Photos by Danny Alexander 

Pitch it! 

Two Southern Indiana residents set to compete in world cornhole championship.

Cornhole, that ubiquitous, classic bag-and-board game found at nearly every barbecue and tailgating party across America, is more than just a weekend past time for Jeff Shepherd Sr. and Terry Mathis.

Shepherd, a retired member of the Charlestown Police Department, and New Albany electrician Terry Mathis have circled around each other at cornhole tournaments for years – and have even been paired together in blind draws in the past – before teaming up to play doubles this season. Together, they’ll compete in the American Corhole Organization’s (ACO) 12th annual world championships July 25-29 in Owensboro, Ky.

According to the ACO, there are more than 1,300 paid members of the organization representing 23 U.S. states. With an average play time of 15 minutes per game, just about anyone can learn the sport. Each season runs from September to May. There are regional events held monthly in each state, and competitors play for points. Those points determine players’ rankings. Divisions and rankings include singles, doubles, women, seniors and juniors.

Shepherd plays in the senior division for players 55 and older, as well as singles and doubles. Mathis plays singles and doubles.

“I’ve thrown ever since I was 13 years old, just not competitively until the last three years when I joined the ACO,” says Shepherd, who is ranked No. 5 in Indiana in singles, fourth in the senior division and 74th in the world, according to the ACO Web site.

Mathis is ranked first in the state and third in the world, and he says he’s been playing for about 10 years. Together, they’re ranked ninth in doubles.

Locally, there about 50 to 60 members of the Kentuckiana chapter of the ACO.

“You go to a tailgating (party) and there’s always somebody playing cornhole,” Mathis says.

Shepherd adds that the sport has increased in popularity with the rise of more companies building and making boards and bags, to the point where entire retail stores are devoted to cornhole. Mathis plays three days a week and on weekends, while Shepherd plays a bit less.

“If you really want to be good at it, we know people who throw 500 bags a day,” Shepherd says, adding that he pitched softball for years and the movements are similar. “That’s just how good some of these guys are. … There’s some that it’s all they do all day.”

Mathis says many of the local and regional tournaments are played by doubles, even at bars where there are blind draws to pair up individuals of different abilities. There are competitors who play the entire season, and there are others who play really well for just a few games, enough to compete on the pro level.

The two have played for years at both the state and world levels, like the one recently held in Indiana, where they were ranked No. 1 in doubles. Mathis is a back-to-back state champion, and they’ve watched each other play singles for years. Separated by one county line, it just made sense for the two to pair up.

The professional cornhole associations have worked in recent years to get the public to see cornhole as more than just a party game.

“Word of mouth is our best advertisement,” Mathis says. “People are trying to get other people to play it. It’s more of a social gathering.”

Adds Shepherd: “I think the ACO is the top-notch public cornhole association.”

The ACO World Championship has more than $30,000 in prize money available, and holds its world event annually in areas where cornhole is popular, and there are plenty of hotels and things to do for the 500 to 600 people who compete at the international level. In larger cities like New York and Las Vegas, cornhole is considered “a side game,” Shepherd says.

At last year’s worlds in Knoxville, Bud Light was a sponsor for the event, which is proof that cornhole is drawing more attention yearly. This year’s worlds will include several categories, including juniors for 17 and under, the women’s division, singles, doubles and seniors.

“They’re trying to get the college crowd involved to have a college series,” Shepherd says. “You get more people involved and the word gets around.”

The ACO also is looking to add a dedicated co-ed division, though male and female players are able to play as teams in the doubles division already.

The competitors typically know one another. “There’s going to be tough competition at the worlds this year,” Mathis says. “I know most of them and how they play. You’re going to want to do a good defense.”

ACO “pro” players finish in the top 80 during the regular season. “If you go to the worlds and you finish in the top 96 out of 128, you’re considered a pro for the next two seasons. And that’s that me and Terry are right now,” Shepherd says.

They play as often as they can in local competitions for practice.

“I never question (Mathis’) throws and I listen to him 99 percent of the time,” Shepherd says.

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“There’s more (to it) than just throwing a bag. There’s a defense to it, if you want to do that. You’ve got four bags – a lot of times people like to throw that first bag, which is called a blocker bag. They throw it to stop in front of the hole and make your opponent do what he’s going to do, whether he’s going to try to slide in around yours (or) throw an ‘air mail’ and just go over yours into the hole. Normally, when they do that, they’re going to make a mistake. And when they do, that’s when you try to capitalize on the next bag by trying to push it. … It’s really a fun game if you’ve never thrown it.

““For me, it’s like a family atmosphere,” Shepherd adds. “I’ve met so many friends that I consider friends for life that I’d have never met it I didn’t play cornhole.”

So You Want To Play Cornhole?

American Corhole Organization players Terry Mathis and Jeff Shepherd Sr. offered some advice for novice cornhole players.

“When you’re first starting out, try to get your bags to land flat,” Mathis says. “You want to make sure you’re lined up to the hole every time. Find your place, find where you want to hit and try to hit that spot every time.

“All I’ll say is go out and practice, or just go out and have a good time. That’s all it is.”

Shepherd advises players to avoid getting nervous or frustrated in the beginning.

“It’s a fun sport,” he says. “It’s a hobby. It’s not life or death.”

As with horseshoes, softball or bowling, there’s a certain level of skill that comes with practice.

“There’s different throws, believe me,” Shepherd says, adding that players eventually find what works for them. “Me and Terry, we’ve seen people who hold the bags by one little corner and try to throw it one way. I wouldn’t recommend that for anybody, but we’ve seen one guy that does it so long, he’s pretty good at it. But I’d say most of your top 40 players, they throw a flat, spinning bag.”

The ACO uses regulation boards and bags with a slick side and a sticky side. The bags are filled with plastic resin beads (bugs and rodents are less apt to snack on them over the classic corn-filled bags).

“The bags we use are anywhere from $50 to $80 a set,” Shepherd says.

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