Beanbag. Soft Horseshoes. Cornhole.

Mark Brescher of Ireland pitched a cornhole bag toward the board as he played in a game of the WBDC Cornhole Tournament of Champions on July 18 at the Dubois County 4-H Fair. The game was one of several put on by WBDC in a tournament series that takes place at the fair and at various festivals during the summer. Cornhole has grown in popularity over the years and takes place at numerous locations in Dubois County.

Story by Jason Recker
Photos by Dave Weatherwax

The first time he heard about cornhole, Rick Hochgesang chuckled at an idea he quickly dismissed.
I’ll never play that, he thought to himself.

The idea of underhand tossing of fabric pouches filled with corn toward a circular hole carved out of a slanted box of wood seemed kind of elementary. Maybe even weird. Certainly slightly hillbilly.
“I laughed,” Hochgesang said. “Made fun of it.”

If he only knew then...

In the eight or so years that bridged Hochgesang’s rejection and his participation in tournaments this summer, cornhole has become an overnight sensation with the power to stay and sway. Boards are as common as grills at football tailgate parties and family gatherings. Tournaments break out in small-town festivals and fairs, and leagues meet weekly in fields, tennis courts and parking lots.
Portability makes the game convenient. Simplicity lures the folks who play only a few times a year and wonder how hard it really can be. Competition draws those willing to take a friendly challenge to the next level.

The boards used to keep track of the scoring during the tournament last Saturday at the Schnellville Hometown Fest and Picnic were labeled “We” and “Them.” The boards are numbered up to 21.

Good luck trying to find somebody who hasn’t at least thrown a few bags.

“One of these days, I don’t know if the magic will still be there,” said Bill Potter, who oversees annual tournaments coordinated by radio station WBDC. “But people just like playing.”

Cornhole, according to the American Cornhole Association — yes, there is such a thing — originated in 14th-century Germany. It’s been called a handful of names: corn toss, beanbag, bean toss, soft horseshoes and even Indiana horseshoes. Folks in Kentucky and southern Ohio — the ACA is based in Cincinnati — claim they got the name “cornhole” to stick.

Southwestern Indiana does its part to uphold the game’s popularity.

On the opening night of the Jasper Park and Recreation Department’s fall league on a Wednesday evening earlier this month, more than 30 people gathered at Jaycee Park. Most had come from Jasper or Ireland or Birdseye. There was a tandem from Crawford County. Two fellas traveled from Glendale in Daviess County. On another team, there was a man from deeper into Daviess County in Raglesville and his teammate from a Lawrence County blip called Huron.

“I’m not surprised by (the turnout),” said Kevin Eisenhut, the 49-year-old Ireland man who’s coordinated the league since its inception seven or eight years ago. “When we go to tournaments, we see guys from Crawford County, a few from around Paoli. We’ve been invited to play up in Montgomery. Guys just like to throw.”

The allure lies in the game’s ease.

Throw the boards on the truck and plop ’em on the ground and you’re set. Four bags per team. Three points for a bag in the hole. One point for any bag on the board. Teams alternate throws and points cancel each other in a race to 21.

Practice is optional and not especially encouraged. Eisenhut joked that from time to time, the only preparation for any game is to down a couple beers.

Will Messmer of Jasper, 10, reacted to one of his throws as he mounted a comeback during the youth cornhole tournament put on by the Jasper Park and Recreation Department on July 12 at Jaycee Park. Will’s run eventually sputtered and he was knocked out of the tournament. The park department hosted two such tournaments for area youth during the summer, the first on June 20.

“It doesn’t matter how good you are,” Eisenhut said. “If you’re not real good, you can still be good on a certain day. There’s some luck, some feel.”

Some have a better feel than others. Hochgesang is among that crowd.

Rick, 49, and his brother, Mick, 54, known in cornhole circles as the talented “Hoagie Brothers,” used to practice two, maybe three times per week. They’d meet at Rick’s place in St. Anthony or Mick’s horse barn in Birdseye. In the winter, they fired up heaters. In the summer, fans. They’d make some friendly wagers with friends and let it fly.

There’s an art to a successful throw. You need the right arc, the proper speed and a good place to land. Landing a bag on the board is like landing an airplane on the runway; sure it’s a good spot to touch down, but what happens next? You have to account for the boards. Are they slick? Sticky? Flatter than the rules stipulate? A bag that skids off the side or back of the board is no good. The good guys hit the hole on the fly or land their bags about a foot in front of the cavity and watch ’er slide on in.

“You want the bag to lay flat when you throw it,” Rick said. “I grab it up front and there’s more wrist action. I spin it a little.”

Like a basketball player shooting free throws, his feet are still.

“I used to start and take a step with my left foot, but I learned over the years that there’s too much mechanics going on,” Rick said. “And a lot of times, (the ground) is uneven. So I keep my left foot up front and the only thing that moves is my right arm. Mick does that, too. But you see it all.
Guys throw between their legs. Guys take two big steps and throw. It’s like baseball and basketball, there’s all different kinds of shots and swings.”

No matter the method, most throws have a purpose.

Sometimes, for instance, you work on an airmail.

Johnny Chumbley of Birdseye watched his wife, Rhonda, and son, Brandon, play on a team together during a WBDC Cornhole Tournament of Champions game at the county fair July 18. Johnny won the tournament held at the Celestine Street Fest in June.

“When somebody tries to block the hole, you throw it over the top,” Rick said. “In the big tournaments, good players block the hole.”

The Hoagie Brothers would know. Two years ago, they participated in a world tournament over Labor Day Weekend in West Virginia. They played against the No. 1-ranked cornhole player in the world, a man named Matt Guy who once swished 44 consecutive bags into the hole. Rick and Mick placed ninth of 124 teams.

“It was in a big arena, and there were boards lined up from here until you couldn’t hardly see anymore,” Rick said. “We were both clicking that day, and that’s what it takes.”

If your partner isn’t on, well, then he’ll probably catch some hell.

Eisenhut noted that he’s never encountered trouble in almost a decade of playing the game. Maybe it’s the laid-back atmosphere or the proximity of counterparts or the cold beverages, but cornhole creates far more self-deprecation and good-natured ribbing than confrontation.

When one of Johnny Chumbley’s tosses in the Jasper fall league smacked two of his other bags off the board Sept. 4, his wife, Rhonda, the only woman in the league, turned her palms toward the sky as if to say, “What are you doing?”

With the team one point from victory, the opponents reeled off a six-point turn.

“That one point is hard to get,” Rhonda said.

Another turn. The Chumbleys remained stuck on 20.

“All we need is one, right?” Rhonda said. “Isn’t that what you told me, hon?”

Another turn. Johnny needed to sink his final bag in the hole. Missed.

Another turn. No points.

Another turn. Zippo.

Another turn. Nope.

“C’mon, dear,” Rhonda hollered. “All we need is one. We’ve been working on that one how many rounds now?”

Another turn. Johnny needed only to land his final bag on the board. Bingo.

Rhonda turned to her left to shake her foe’s hand. Across the court, Johnny pivoted to his left to do the same. Then, they all met in the middle.

Jasper High School senior Gina Kiefer, left, signaled that classmate Jessie Gudorf was close to sinking a bag as they played cornhole while tailgating in the parking lot of the Schroeder Soccer Complex in Jasper Aug. 30.

“People are friends,” said Potter, the WBDC tournament director. “There’s camaraderie.”

In the circuit of summertime tournaments sponsored by WBDC, Potter lets each team keeps its own score and monitor rules set forth by the ACA (Potter is card-carrying member No. 111952). Among the laws: Players aren’t allowed to step in front of the board when they throw, and any bag that hits the ground is declared dead.

Bags must meet specifications also. For that, there are experts among us.

Aaron Sermersheim made the bags for the WBDC tournaments, and he’s going to make some for the Jasper fall league next year. From his job as an upholsterer at Best Home Furnishings, he knew how to work needle and thread. He bought an industrial sewing machine for side jobs, one of which is making bags.

The 6-inch squares weigh 1 pound each and cost $20 per eight-bag set.

He buys 3 or 4 yards of duck cloth at a time at Ben Franklin in Jasper. It’s what Carhartt jackets are made of, and its tiny holes permit dust to exit the bag and leave a visible resin on the boards. He gets whole-kernel corn in 50-pound bags from Superior Ag Resources Co-op in Jasper and stores it in a freezer to prevent bug infestation. With each crash landing, corn breaks apart, creating the resin absent when beans or other material is stuffed into the duck cloth.

As the ACA website says, “beanbags are for wimps.”

“Orders are sporadic,” Sermersheim, 39, said. “But they pick up in the summer.”

Just in time for a season that one year brought more than 64 teams to the WBDC tournament during the Strassenfest in Jasper. That summer, Potter had to turn away aspiring throwers. Now, it’s typical for some of the trail’s more popular stops to attract 40 to 60 tandems.

The payout isn’t grand — a few hundred bucks, tops — and the level of expertise among regulars can give casual throwers second thoughts about entering. But it’s mostly about pride and niche fame. WBDC’s winners earn a spot in the end-of-the-season tournament of champions at the Huntingburg Herbstfest. Eisenhut tracks wins and losses on a computer spreadsheet for the Jasper fall league and the champs receive T-shirts.

 Leon Reckelhoff of Jasper, left, and Tom Kaiser of Odon shook hands as they finished a match during the first night of the weekly Jasper park department’s cornhole league that began Sept. 4 on the tennis courts near the city swimming pool. Twelve teams signed up for this year’s league.

For aspiring dead-eyes, competition is part of summer. At a Jasper Park and Recreation event at Jaycee Park in June, boys and girls crowded the boards and oohed and aahed as Tanner Erny and Austin Wolf repeatedly staved off elimination with clutch throws before Erin Lyons and Avery Bell nicked them to win the bracket for the day’s older players. There were high-fives and fist pumps and picnic lunches and a ticket to get into the adjacent city swimming pool for free.

Afterward, Erny and Wolf absorbed some razzing. Lyons smiled like a winner usually does. She was having fun.

With this game, that seems to be the theme.

“Five years ago, I hadn’t heard of it,” Potter said. “I knew there was a bag toss of some sort, but never heard it called cornhole. I am surprised at the longevity. People just can’t seem to get enough.”

Contact Jason Recker at jrecker@dcherald.com.




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