Thursday, April 19, 2018
Events

For Tampa's elite 'pros,' cornhole more than a tailgate game

There's a lingo you hear when you get around a group of serious cornhole players.

The words airmail, woody, pitcher's box and slider hang in the air among the uninitiated — familiar sounding, but not at all what you're thinking.

Every night, these terms fly around in conversations among Tampa Bay's cornhole elite, a group that has grown steadily since the tailgating game gained more popularity in Florida in the past 10 years.

Jokingly, event organizers call them the pros, or pro cornhole players. Seriously. This group of players has turned a backyard sport and bar game into a hyper-competitive fight to the finish.

"We actually had to change our weekly tournament to a blind draw with random partners to make it more competitive because some of these guys would come in and just win every week," said Jason Martin, owner of Custom Corn Toss, a cornhole set shop.

The pros don't consider cornhole a drinking game. Most everyone you see playing has a cold one nearby, but the game of tossing a beanbag through a hole in a wooden board has as much to do with alcohol as darts and pool.

Local leagues don't discourage the elites from playing, but still, many stay away.

"I don't do the leagues because there are a lot of newbies and I don't want them to be discouraged," said Joe Hope, 42, an A/C contractor from Clearwater and 2012's winner of Custom Corn Toss's Tournament at Bright House Field.

"We want to grow the sport," he said.

•••

It's hard to think of a game played largely in bars and outside RVs at football games as a sport, but that's only because it's relatively new.

The American Cornhole Organization formed in 2005 to govern the pros, hold tournaments and keep track of international rankings. Players and teams travel to Ohio every summer for their shot at a piece of $50,000 in prize money.

Locally, most every cornhole tourney has money on the line. On a random Wednesday night, one team at Martin's game during Bright House Field's Happy Hour took home $90. Local weekend tourneys offer up to $1,000.

"It's one of those sports that men and women can do competitively together," said John Fuentes, 33, a dock supervisor in Plant City. "And short people have the advantage because we've got the sight."

Hope and Fuentes are among the pros recognized by event organizers around the Tampa Bay area as competitive players who raise the stakes of each game they enter.

Even among the pros, there's a standard.

That standard seems to be Scott Lane. He's the reigning champion in the area's single-player tournament, Tampa Bay Tosser.

"He's like the best at adjusting to the environment that there is," said self-described "Airmail King" Chris Leto, 31, a Publix manager from Plant City. "Scott adjusts to the weather, boards, bags, atmosphere and other conditions better than anyone I know."

Lane's partner, 33-year-old financial executive Chris Cuccia, said he'd watched him play around town and decided they should get together when they were both in need of a new teammate.

"By far, he's the best player," said Cuccia, who also operates the local cornhole-ranking website, corninthebay.com.

Leto said that as a team, Cuccia and Lane are scary.

"They offset each other so well," he said. "Pound for pound they are the best team around."

Lane said he isn't a sports guy. He isn't particularly tall or muscular. Even now, his son can beat him at a game of one-on-one basketball, he admitted.

But at cornhole, he's a sniper.

"It's the competitive nature of it," said Lane, 35, a window installer from Hudson.

"It's just practice. That's it," he said. "Nothing special, just practice."

Lane didn't start playing cornhole until three years ago. Some friends were tossing and he was not interested. One night he picked up a bag and gave the game a whirl.

Now, he stacks beanbags on his blue-and-white home cornhole boards and tries to pitch according to the situation. He practices knocking in his own dangling bags and knocking off his opponents. He practices airmails — tossing the bag directly into the hole without hitting the board or sliding.

But he's just one of many.

Cuccia himself has a cornhole set at home and one in his office at Prudential Financial.

"I wear a suit and tie every day and a lot of important people come into my office. People I work with see a (customized) Prudential cornhole set and laugh," Cuccia said. "But they get a kick out of it."

•••

Nearly every day, the bay's best toss regulation beanbags at the regulation boards sitting in their homes and backyards. Weeknights, they gather for casual games at local bars, restaurants and happy hours looking for competition to sharpen their skills. On the weekends, they pack up and drive or fly to some other town to enter a daylong tournament and possibly come home a few bucks richer.

The money's a bonus. The real thrill is winning.

Lane practices every day, plays socially three times a week and has traveled as far away as New Jersey for a tournament — where he won, bringing home $500.

"Since we started, everyone has gotten better," Lane said. "People are improving so you can never relax."

Martin, owner of Custom Corn Toss, said he came to Florida in the early aughts with an idea and no fear of rejection.

A friend in his native Ohio was making big bucks building custom cornhole sets and selling them. Martin said he wanted to take the game to a warmer climate and grow it from scratch.

Easier said than done with something called cornhole.

"It was really problem because of the pornographic sound of the name," laughed Martin, who is trying to re-brand the game Corn Toss. "Going into businesses and trying to get them to try out cornhole was hard."

In the beginning, partnerships with Tampa Bay Club Sport and WSUN-FM 97X helped him spread the cornhole gospel and convert dozens into diehards.

The game's gotten so popular that local charities use it to generate revenue. Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Tampa Bay recently hosted a 50-team tournament at the Grand Central at Kennedy in Channelside to raise $7,000 for the program, said Amy Neff Hollington, senior director of special events for the charity.

"This money will help us place seven at-risk children with their matches," she said. "It's a fun way to raise the needed funding."

The pros regularly play in charity tourneys, but Lane, Cuccia and a few others missed the Big Brothers Big Sisters event for the chance to gain ranking points at the at the Graffiti Junktion Shootout in Clermont on May 11.

Lane and Cuccia placed 1st, 3rd and 4th in three separate tournaments — netting $200 in winnings — and jumped from third to second in the Corn in the Bay rankings.

It's all a warm-up for the aces, who plan to head to the 2013 American Cornhole Organization World Championships to be held in Cincinnati in July.

"We usually do pretty well," Cuccia said. "About 200 teams compete from across the nation; we usually rank in the Top 20."

The ACO campaigned earlier this year to have the championships televised on ESPN3, but their Kickstarter campaign fell well short of the goal.

But maybe next year, you'll see your hometown boys on the small screen.

You can grab an cold one and root them on.

   
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