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Local standouts making mark in fast-growing professional cornhole world

North Coast ACL pros (l to r): Matt Allen, Eric Tscherne and Jodi Lim
North Coast ACL pros (l to r): Matt Allen, Eric Tscherne and Jodi Lim
(Ken Grosse)

Depending on the source, cornhole—where players try to throw six-inch square, 16 oz. bags through six-inch holes carved into angled two x four foot wooden boards set 27 feet apart—has as many as 25 million people playing the game worldwide. Most of them are like your friends and neighbors, playing sporadically at parties, tailgates and other social gatherings, often with an adult beverage in hand.

As the American Cornhole League (ACL), the game’s pre-eminent governing body, trumpets prominently on its website—“Anyone can play, anyone can win.” That’s probably true in a macro sense but when you start breaking down the statistics and digging a little deeper you’ll find the upper echelon of the competitive cornhole world is quite a bit removed from your typical backyard player.

Encinitas resident Eric Tscherne at the recent ACL Pro event in Las Vegas.
Encinitas resident Eric Tscherne at the recent ACL Pro event in Las Vegas.
(Mike Sorensen)

The ACL currently boasts over 55,000 dues-paying members and has a regional conference structure that ties into thousands of local tournaments and potentially millions of players in the U.S. The prize money for its five professional level tournaments has doubled in each of the past three years (the total is $1 million for 2021-22) and there are television contracts with ESPN and CBS. Most of the hundreds of weekly events scattered across the country throughout the year feature cash prizes and often have a smattering of professional players included in their fields.

While top ACL professionals are not making NFL, NBA or MLB money for their talents, the sport is clearly tracking in an upward direction. It’s recent explosion in participation numbers was partially fueled by its outdoor, socially-distanced nature (during Covid-19) and the fact that the ACL was the first sport to televise live events during the height of the pandemic (April-May 2020).

Jodi Lim
(Mike Sorensen)

The rapid national growth and transformation of the game is also being reflected locally. Throughout the year in San Diego there are tournaments and leagues scheduled on a weekly basis at breweries (like AleSmith in Mira Mesa, Five Suits in Vista and BNS in Santee to name a few), hotels and other sites across county. Participants of varying skill levels can pay a modest entry fee for a well-organized, multi-division tournament, played in a casual social environment and maybe come away with a little extra spending money. Most of these are doubles formats where pairings are determined by the results of a series of partner-switching prelim rounds.

The ACL breaks the game into three basic levels—Advanced, Competitive and Intermediate. Then there’s the Pro Division. Each year, the ACL designates 256 of the highest level Advanced players as “Pros” for the official 10-month season. There are a variety of paths a player can take to qualify for the professional ranks.

Matt Allen
Matt Allen
(Mike Sorensen)

First, the top 100 singles players and top 50 doubles teams (point-wise) from the previous season’s five pro events automatically retain their pro status. The 14 winners of ACL conference singles tournaments are added as well. Then there’s the ACL version of the PGA’s Q-School, the annual Pro Qualifying Tournament. Typically held the first week of August on the final day of the World Championships, it’s open to anyone who can meet a set of tough qualifying standards (the field is normally around 500) and has a rigorous one-day format from which the top 32 players emerge as ACL Pros for the coming season.

The ACL is headquartered in Rock Hill, SC and the bulk of its premier players hail from the Mid-South and Lower Midwest regions of the country. But the West is starting to make inroads and North Coastal San Diego is definitely part of that new wave. One of the players leading the way is Encinitas resident Eric Tscherne.

The 46-year-old Tscherne first saw the game about eight years ago, started a local group (4-In) and began running weekend tournaments in 2017 on a tennis court near his house. A little less than two years ago he became the first North Coast area player to earn ACL Pro designation. His relatively swift ascension is something that most players can at least initially hope to emulate.

“It was easy to get started, I saw it was one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S. and I realized you didn’t have to be a genetic freak to compete,” says Tscherne,. “It fits a lot of people who were good at something in high school, have some talent and are willing to work to get that repetitive motion down.”

Tscherne, who called the ACL Pro Qualifying Tournament “the toughest event I’ve ever played in” fits the profile. A prep golfer in Ohio, he graduated from University of Cincinnati with an industrial design degree. His professional resume includes five years at Mattel Toys where his work with Hot Wheels led to his induction in the Die Cast Hall of Fame in 2011. He did a stint with Carlsbad-based trading card company Upper Deck and spent 10 years at Spin Master where he was instrumental in developing animation properties and toys around the popular children’s television show Paw Patrol. He’s now a self-employed design consultant who also works for San Diego cornhole company Ultra (bags, boards and gear). His game, versatile skill set and persistence have him steadily fashioning a multi-faceted, cornhole-centric second career.

Although his first pro cornhole season was focused on gaining experience, he was able to post some impressive finishes, maintain his ACL status and is now in year two on the circuit. He’s been joined in 2021-22 by another pair of local throwers—Jodi Lim and Matt Allen—who were selected as part of a relatively new ACL initiative, the Pro Development Cup (PDC).

This group is the “next 64,” comprised of advanced players who narrowly missed the cut for the main 256-person ACL Pro roster. PDC players are invited to the ACL’s professional tournaments and play against each other in a pre-tourney event from which the one-through-five finishers gain access to the pro tourney’s main draw. They are also allowed to identify themselves as ACL pros. Like Tscherne, Lim and Allen, who are regular doubles partners, lend credence to the ACL’s “anyone can play, anyone can win” theme in that they have different backgrounds and unique progressions in the game.

Both are San Diego County natives. Lim, 52, graduated from Torrey Pines High School, lives in Del Mar and graduated from Cal Poly Pomona as an urban and regional planning major. After getting a master’s degree in public administration from National University, he worked as a city planner in Poway and then Indio before stepping into his current role as community development director for the City of Solana Beach.

In 2013, he was introduced to cornhole at the home of prep classmate Ryan Hoberg, another high-quality area player. Soon after, as a summer project, he and his daughter built their own set of boards. As a youngster, Lim competed in club and high school soccer, cross country, track & field and is now an avid golfer. He likens cornhole to the latter.

“I find it comparable to golf in that you want to be perfect at it but you will never actually be perfect,” said Lim. “Kind of like the swing, release in golf, there are all those kinds of little things that affect how a golf ball or bag will react.

“You need to be patient and learn to enjoy it. There’s a surprising amount of strategy and it can be frustrating seeing how games can be so different from one another.”

The 41-year-old Allen, an Encinitas resident who lives less than a mile from Tscherne, is a fifth generation San Diegan who attended San Dieguito High School (his father’s alma mater) but graduated from the newly-opened La Costa Canyon in 1998. His parents met as students at UC San Diego and he is the oldest of four male siblings. A human development graduate from UCSD, Allen has a pair of master’s degrees from Touro University in Northern California.

He’s logged 12 years on the staff at Tri-City Emergency Room in Oceanside, starting as an EMT in 2010 before becoming a physician’s assistant (PA). Allen is now the lead PA at Tri-City, working for doctors but doing essentially the same things, everything from stitches to spinal taps, drawing fluids, ordering scans and x-rays, admitting patients to the hospital and a wide variety of procedures

He has still found time to become a consistent contender on the San Diego cornhole scene. A baseball and soccer player in high school, Allen first played cornhole on a trip back East in 2009. He found he had a knack for it and about two years later he and his brother, Jeremy, made their own set of boards. He has since started a personal line of cornhole bags, Magnum, which has grown along with his game. He has considerable aspirations for his cornhole future, but faces a little bit more of a balancing act than Tscherne and Lim.

“I’ve played other sports competitively and always hoped to be able to consider myself a professional at some point,” says Allen. “I would like to be able to go from PDC to full pro status but know that’s not going to be easy, particularly with my work hours. Let’s say I don’t expect to be quitting my job at the hospital anytime soon.”

All three have relatively similar playing styles, built around proficient “slide” games that are coupled with solid “airmail” capabilities—meaning they usually land their bags somewhat lower on the board and let the momentum carry it up the board and into the hole (slide) but, when needed, can deliver on the shorter percentage airmail which goes directly into the hole without hitting the board.

The consistent Allen relies the most heavily on his down-the-middle approach while Lim is more likely to dial up his airmail at any time. Tscherne falls somewhere in the middle.

Their average time spent playing or practicing during a given week generally falls somewhere in the 20-plus hours range, depending on how many tournaments they enter. When throwing on an open board, each of the trio would normally put 80-to-90 percent of the bags in the hole. “The best guys are super high, like 90-95%,” said Tscherne, “and in a given game they can get close to 100%,”

Even though the game is simple at its core, all three of the pros say there’s plenty the average backyard thrower would be surprised to find out about the game as it’s played by its most talented practitioners.

“It’s a whole different feeling, everything is new,” says Tscherne. “You’re playing with two-sided bags (fast/slow), guys who are putting everything in the hole and others who are blocking you. It can be very intimidating. There’s definitely a mental part of the game that you need to be able to cope with to be successful.”

Allen says, “The two things I think most people would be surprised by are just the sheer amount of bags we put in the hole and how much bag position and other tactical stuff matters. When you play at a high level, a lot of thought and technique comes into play.

For Lim, it’s more elementary. “It’s how addictive it can be,” he said. “You start winning and then you want to keep getting better so you play a lot. The game offers so many different scenarios and that keeps it interesting. I think people would be surprised at how hard you have to work to get results against good players.”

The idea that “anyone can win” is not something that rings hollow, though. It is perhaps the only sport where men and women can and do compete head-to-head and the ACL has a bloc of leading pros who could qualify as senior citizens as well as a handful who have yet to reach their teens. Last summer, women’s champ Cheyenne Renner faced off against the ACL’s No. 1 singles player and eventual winner, Trey Burchfield, in the singles final at the World Championships.

ACL Commissioner Stacy Moore recently floated the notion that the game could at some point be included in the Olympics. While not necessarily going that far, from Tscherne’s perspective there’s a lot to like about cornhole’s future.

“I see the game just continuing to grow and the possibilities seem kind of endless,” he said. “What’s happened so far has been pretty organic. When you look at all of the positive things happening from a marketing sense and the diverse make-up of the people playing, there’s every reason to believe it can keep getting bigger.

“I’ve heard a lot of people describe cornhole as a community and it definitely brings a lot of people together. Our weekly San Diego tournaments draw people from all over the county. There’s a family atmosphere to it and it’s a lifelong sport you can play any age.”


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