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It’s in the bag

Wilson’s Poythress finishes ACO season ranked No. 1 and the Player of the Year

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An in-season basketball ban during gym class at Fike High has turned into the ultimate blessing in disguise for Tyler Poythress.

Poythress, a 2013 Fike graduate, was a pitcher for the Golden Demons varsity baseball team. During his senior season at Fike, Poythress had to work around the wishes of head coach Will Flowers in his 31st and final season at the school.

With Flowers discouraging his players from in-season pickup games, Poythress had to find a viable alternative to fill out the class period.

Lo and behold, cornhole boards — creations of Fike athletic director Toni Varacchi — were situated off to the side. Poythress went over to try his hand at this new activity. Would his skill on the mound translate to untapped potential in the world of weighted bags and boards?

Actually, Poythress was a natural.

After a neighbor who played in local tournaments showed him the proper way to throw the bag, Poythress began playing in local tournaments along with his father. He stepped up to the professional level in 2015, playing pro-level events in the American Cornhole Organization ranks. Following three seasons of steady improvement in his end-of-season points ranking, Poythress ended Season XII of the ACO with the No. 1 spot on the singles points list, earning him Player of the Year honors.

Not bad for someone forced to shoot with one hand instead of two.

“I just went over to the side, started playing and it came natural with pitching,” Poythress said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I picked up on it kind of quick.”

The local tournaments were satisfying for a season. But the game commonly associated with tailgates and backyard barbecues offered something greater. Poythress steadily expanded his cornhole network and learned of out-of-state tournaments.

Eventually, the ACO landed on his radar. It was time to really throw some bag.

SIMPLE BUT SUBTLE

Scoring in professional cornhole isn’t a complicated endeavor. Games are played to 21 points, and players are allowed to exceed 21 to accomplish the feat in lieu of some popular alternatives. Each player throws four bags per round, and a shot into the hole is worth three points. Bags that end the round on the board count for one point, but only one player can score points in a given round through the cancellation rule. If one player scores six points in a round and the other three, then three points are doled out for the round. Similarly, a tie for the round produces no points for either player.

“At the professional level, you’ll see a lot of times where for example, I’ll put all four bags in the hole and then my opponent may put all four bags in the hole,” Poythress said. “And that’s just no points for the round.”

In the backyard or two hours before kickoff, any bag in the hole is celebrated — usually with adult beverage accompaniment in the non-throwing hand. At the ACO level? Not so much as the 15-second shot clock churns.

“You have to consistently make at least three bags each round if you want to win the big tournaments,” Poythress said.

However, don’t dismiss cornhole at its highest level as a simple game of who can hole more bags. That’s important, but dictating traffic flow on the board carries just as much weight.

A common tactic among professionals is aiming for a spot just in front of the hole, taking away any chance of an opponent sliding his bag into the hole without knocking in what’s known as the “blocker bag.”

“When you get into the pro level, you’re going to have a player where he may not even try to make his first bag,” Poythress said. “He’ll try to lay that first bag in front of the hole so you can’t slide it in without hitting his.”

The traditional counter is what’s known as the “air mail” shot, where a player, similar to a “nothing but net” free throw in basketball, throws the bag in such a way where it goes in the hole without touching the board. Successful air mails can put the pressure on the blocker to knock his bag in, increasing the chance for an erroneous throw off the board entirely.

Board conditions can change from tournament to tournament. As a player that prefers a harder throw, Poythress will benefit from a sticky terrain that kills the motion of the bag.

“If there are sticky boards, then I’m more than likely to really excel in that tournament,” Poythress said.

PROFESSIONAL PROGRESS

While the points season has come to a close with Poythress happy about his first No. 1 ACO ranking and Player of the Year accolade, the game’s biggest prize is still at stake.

A total of 128 players will convene on Owensboro, Kentucky for the ACO World Championships of Cornhole, beginning July 25. At stake is the coveted title of “King of Cornhole,” earned by only five players in 11 years.

For Poythress, his progress has been steady in the regular-season points race. In 2015, he finished No. 37 in the ACO singles rankings, earning an automatic bid into the King of Cornhole fray. There, Poythress finished seventh.

Last year, Poythress improved, finishing eighth in the final points standings. But at the world championships, he struggled mightily. The mental struggle associated with that quick exit from King of Cornhole caused him to re-evaluate his future in the sport.

“I was struggling at the end of the year,” Poythress said. “I was just ready to hang it up and go try something new when I was struggling.”

Yet thanks to a North Carolina contact in Season XI Player of the Year Jamie Graham, Poythress was able to regain his form. Graham and Poythress held practice sessions, allowing Poythress to revitalize his game.

“He was like, ‘No man, you’re too good for that. You don’t need to quit,’” Poythress said of Graham. “You don’t need to hang your head, you just had a bad showing.”

Indeed, Poythress emerged from Season XI ready to stake his claim among the ACO elite.

SEASON XII BREAKTHROUGH

To seize the No. 1 ranking at the end of Season XII, Poythress had little choice but to be free of mental distractions. Kentucky’s Matt Guy, who Poythress tabbed as the “Michael Jordan of Cornhole,” was hot on his heels.

The ACO points system awards points based on a player’s top six finishes in regional events and their top three showings in what are considered ACO majors.

Poythress easily logged a perfect score in regional tournaments, winning eight events but only needing six. Poythress and Guy deadlocked in the “majors” point total with 148 each.

But the minuscule difference between the two came down to a single regional event in Cincinnati.

Indeed, it was out of Poythress’ territory, but his attendance was absolutely necessary.

Had Guy prevailed in Cincinnati, then Poythress and Guy would have been tied in the final points standings. The tiebreaker would have reverted to most wins in majors, which would have went to Guy.

Instead, Poythress, making his first appearance at the Cincinnati event, overcame a hostile crowd to defeat Guy in the championship match, assuring him of the No. 1 ranking.

Guy is the ACO’s most decorated player, having earned the King of Cornhole reign on seven different occasions.

“I had to go on his playing field and beat him for the number one spot,” Poythress said of Guy. “With the whole building cheering against met too! Because they definitely wanted the hometown guy to win.”

Now, Poythress will be the No. 1 seed in the field on cornhole’s biggest stage.

“I had a goal to go ahead and get Player of the Year,” Poythress said of his third season as a pro. “And I got it.”

jlewis@wilsontimes.com | 265-7807 | Twitter: @JimmyLewisWT

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