What many people have long considered a backyard game to be played at cook-outs and barbecues has become an obsession for three Parsons men, so much so that they have become professionals, and a local 11-year-old phenomenon might soon follow in their footsteps.
John Fuentez and Adrian Knapper have been competing as professionals in the American Cornhole League for a little more than two years. This year they are joined by fellow Parsonian Kyle Hutley, who made his debut on the circuit with the 2021 ACL Kickoff Battle Feb. 5-7 in Winter Haven, Florida.
After the trio competed again in the 2021 ACL Cornhole Mania from March 19 to 21 in Wichita, Fuentez landed at 80th place among the 236 professionals cornhole players. He is tied for 19th in doubles with his throwing partner, Jay Corley. Hutley is tied for 17th in pro doubles with his partner Justin Lang and is in 152nd place in singles. Knapper is tied for 65th in doubles with Ryan Littlejohn and is in 134th on his own.
Fuentez qualified as a pro in 2019 by finishing in the top 16 in his conference. The ACL has about 10 conferences, he said. Now, players must compete at a pro qualifier in August and finish in the top 32. Fuentez said there are other ways to turn pro that are more complicated. Regardless, with cornhole growing in popularity along with the ACL, the competition for turning pro and remaining a pro is getting stiffer.
“It’s harder, a lot harder,” Fuentez said.
To remain a pro, Fuentez and the others will have to finish this season, which runs from August to August, in the top 100 in singles or the top 50 in doubles. Those who fail to reach either of those benchmarks have to play in the qualifying tournaments against all of the newcomers hoping to take their spots.
Professionals also must play at least three of the four national tournaments and the championship tourney to qualify as a pro. Fuentez plans to skip a national tournament scheduled for Fourth of July, but he probably will also compete in one or two opens. He and the other two pros in town also will travel to conference or state events.
“It’s a ridiculous amount of travel,” Fuentez said. “We travel about every other weekend.”
Fuentez’s journey to professional status started several years ago while he was playing wiffleball at Ron McDaniel’s property on the north side of town. While the wiffleball league games were running nearby on McDaniel’s private fields, McDaniel always played cornhole, or bags as the game also is known. Fuentez joined the cornhole games when he could, and soon he was hooked. He got his own boards and bags and started playing with his cousins and dad.
“That’s all we really used to do,” Fuentez said.
He improved in the game over time, and one day he and Knapper saw an ACL cornhole competition on ESPN. They wanted to give it a try, so they drove to Oklahoma City to compete in an open tournament and beat everyone. Soon they were competing in St. Louis, Arkansas, Kansas City, Wichita and Tulsa and won several other tournaments.
“We thought, man, we’re better than we thought,” Fuentez said.
Knapper remembers when Fuentez started talking about going pro. People just laughed at him.
“I said, ‘I’m going with him,’ and they laughed even harder,” Knapper said.
Knapper got involved in cornhole after he saw people playing at a backyard barbecue. He liked how everyone was whooping and hollering for the good throws being made. Knapper said it reminded him of playing basketball back in high school and for Labette Community College. He played a few games and fell in love with the sport.
Knapper wanted to improve, so he bought some cheap boards at Walmart, but his friends made fun of him. One friend let him borrow some good bags and boards. Before long, Knapper was playing every day after work and on the weekends. Fuentez soon was right there with him, teaching him how to throw. Knapper said Fuentez was his Mr. Miyagi, referring to the character in “Karate Kid” who taught karate to young Daniel LaRusso.
“He would whip me all summer every day,” Knapper said. “I know his wife hated me.”
Eventually, Knapper got good enough to beat Fuentez every now and then. Others started to go to his house to play also.
Knapper became an ACL local director so that he could host local tournaments. Through those and regional, state and conference tournaments, Knapper and Fuentez earned enough points to turn pro. He is no longer a local director after the ACL raised the cost for local affiliations.
While the pair were dominant in all of the area tournaments before turning pro, Fuentez said this past year the competition has become tougher.
“Once everyone saw it on TV, they all started practicing,” Fuentez said.
The ACL has been around for at least five years, Fuentez said, but ESPN started televising in about the last couple of years.
CBS Sports this year plans to televise nine pro shootouts this summer with $40,000 or $50,000 payouts, Fuentez said, meaning the top winner in singles will get over $6,000. All the national professional tournaments pay out about that much.
Fuentez and his partner were featured on ESPN during the Florida tournament, where they finished tied for 17th.
“It was freaking awesome. That’s obviously what I always wanted,” Fuentez said.
Knapper hasn’t been on ESPN yet, but there have been times when he was a win or two away.
“That’s been our dream from the start,” Knapper said.
Knapper said one highlight was last year when he and Fuentez were playing as partners. They went to a tournament in Cleveland. They had just played in a blind draw on the night before the tournament really got started. The next day the tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. All of the pros were going to another city to play, so Fuentez and Knapper went too. They ended up taking second place, losing only to Jamie Graham and his partner. Graham is now Matt Guy’s partner and also signed a $500,000 five-year contract.
Fuentez and Knapper had to beat another top pro, Frank Modlin, and his partner to get to the championship match. All of the pros were watching.
“We were on Cloud 9,” Knapper said.
Hutley started playing cornhole about three years ago. He was introduced to the game when visiting his girlfriend’s parents’ house. Her dad and uncle were playing with some of their friends, and Hutley was able to play also. Before long, he was one of the regulars.
“I just thought it was really fun, so I played in the yard with them all the time,” Hutley said.
Eventually, Hutley and his friend, Tristan Smith, decided to go play in their first big cash tournament in Tulsa.
“We wanted to go see the big tournament and see how good we really were,” Hutley said.
It wasn’t an ACL-sanctioned event, but when they arrived, they saw many pros in their jerseys ready to compete. It was intimidating, but they pulled through and wound up with a third place finish. Knapper and Jacob Nance, also of Parsons, took the title.
Hutley and Smith kept going to big events. After some success, Hutley decided it was time to try to take it to the next level by becoming a pro. Like Nance, Smith decided to not try to go pro. Although Knapper and Hutley agree they could.
Hutley would have compete in a qualifying tournament to turn pro, but he wasn’t able to make it. The ACL took four or five applicants in, and he was one. He had to show a resume with his points earned and big wins.
“I snuck in that way,” Hutley said.
Hutley finished in a tie for 17th in doubles at Wichita, giving them about a 20-point jump in the standings. Like Knapper, he hasn’t been on ESPN yet either, but he did make it to the webcam court for the ACL livestream.
“That was pretty cool,” Hutley said.
Like Fuentez, Knapper agrees that competition is getting tougher in the sport.
“The talent is just rising, man,” Knapper said.
In Parsons, though, Knapper said the talent has always been great. That’s why he wasn’t too amazed by the skill on display at the pro level when he first started. Even though he is a pro, Knapper still will lose matches against local amateurs such as Nance. Younger guys like Ivory Kelly and Spencer Gatewood are good, too, Knapper said.
“It’s just loaded with talent around here,” Knapper said.
And then there’s Alex Hicks, the Parsons fifth grade sensation who has amazed everyone who has seen him play.
“He’s special,” Knapper said of the boy they call “Phenom.”
Others call Alex “Young Goat,” with goat being short for greatest of all time.
Fuentez said he plays with and against Alex quite a bit. At a recent state tournament, Alex was the only one who beat Fuentez, knocking him out of the tourney.
“It’s been hard to beat me lately for a lot of people, and he’s the only one who beat me,” Fuentez said.
Alex beat an 11-year-old pro from Louisiana twice. Fuentez said Alex plans to compete in the pro qualifying tournament this year, and Fuentez thinks he has a great shot at becoming the fourth pro from Parsons.
At one tournament, Alex teamed with Fuentez to take the title, beating Matt and Brett Guy of the Guy Nation team. Matt Guy has won 10 championships and recently signed a deal that will pay him $500,000 for five years, Fuentez said.
“It’s just weird. He just hit the biggest shot ever to win that tournament,” Fuentez said.
Alex is ranked fourth in the state, behind Hutley, who is second. Because Alex is the brother of Hutley’s girlfriend, they travel together frequently, playing in many state tournaments.
“He goes everywhere I go pretty much,” Hutley said.
Hutley thinks Alex’s talent for his age is unmatched.
“In my opinion, he’s definitely the best junior in the world for sure,” Hutley said.
Since turning pro, Hutley still likes to go to all kind of events, including small, local tournaments like one in Webb City, Missouri. He competes in Wichita and Kansas City at least once a month.
“We try to find something each weekend if we can,” Hutley said. “It’s just crazy. You can find somewhere to go every weekend.”
Traveling can get expensive, but the pros are sponsored by companies and organizations such as BG Cornhole, Kansas City Cornhole and Suns of Pitches Cornhole that pay their entry fees and give them free bags and merchandise.
Hutley said being a professional cornhole player has been awesome, and he feels fortunate that he got into the sport early.
“I’m sure it sounds silly, but I think this is the fastest growing sport, and it’s still rising,” Hutley said.
Hutley said when he was an amateur, he wanted to take on all of the top players to try to prove he could compete with them. Now that he is a pro, he doesn’t want to lose to people because it will make him look bad.
“It’s kind of a different mindset, and it’s really cool,” Hutley said.
The pros still compete locally. Knapper said two nights a week there is cornhole action at Brown-Bishop Post No. 704, Veterans of Foreign Wars.
They get plenty of practice on their own, too, when not competing.
“Every day I get a chance, and that’s about every day,” Knapper said.
During the winter months, Knapper has stored his boards at the Arvon Phillips Community Center so he can play inside after he works out.
Knapper hopes to improve upon his most recent showing in singles, when he finished in 134th at Wichita.
Knapper said sometimes when he competes, the adrenalin starts flowing and he gets a little nervous thinking about not wanting to let people down.
“You got a lot riding on that,” he said.
It doesn’t help to think about competing against other pros fighting to get to a spot in the top 100 and staying there.
“Those guys in the losers’ bracket, those guys are pros. Every guy is stroking it just like you,” Knapper said.
Knapper and his partner plan to play in all four of the national events. They are ranked 65th in doubles, so they could use the extra points they will gain by not skipping any of the tournaments. The next event is the 2021 ACL Bag Brawl April 30-May 2 in Las Vegas.
“I like doubles because I look down at my partner, and I don’t want to let him down,” Knapper said.
But like Fuentez and Hutley probably feel, Knapper said he feels blessed just to be playing a game he loves professionally.