by Kimberly Rivers
It’s the largest cornhole tournament in the world, with over 2,000 players and the highest payout. But according to one Santa Paula resident, whose two-person team has so far been the only Ventura County-based team to ever win the big cash payout at the Throw Down, locals have a key advantage.
“We play outdoors all the time, the pros do not . . . if it’s too windy or too hot, if the conditions aren’t perfect . . . that is an advantage for us . . . bring it,” said Jesse Segovia, who has lived in Santa Paula for 17 years. He won the grand prize at the Throw Down in 2017 with his teammate, Garrett Beckman, and has placed on the podium every year since.
As for what this coming weekend looks like in terms of his chances for winning, Segovia thinks that locals have a clear advantage with the weather. He does admit, however, that, “you know, it’s hard to say. If it’s your day to win, you’re gonna win. My number one goal is the number one spot, as always.”
Cornhole was bigger on the East Coast and in the Midwest long before the Throw Down helped popularize it in California. The first few years, teams from out of state usually took home the top prize. That all changed in 2017, when Segovia and Beckman “were the first Ventura County residents to win [the tournament]. That was a big deal for everyone in the county. After that I was hooked on the game.”
“It’s a growing women’s sport”
Segovia has made one key change for 2021.
“Garrett unfortunately hasn’t played in a few years. He got married and had kids, so he’s busy,” said Segovia, laughing. Thus, this year he’s teaming up with Camille Yanez of Ventura. In preparation for the Throw Down, the two have been playing at a variety of other tournaments. They hope that they will be taking the top podium spot come the finale on Sunday, Aug. 29.
Yanez grew up in the Santa Clara Valley and has now lived in Ventura for 14 years. She’s been playing cornhole for about eight years and got into the sport playing with her daughter’s coach in the parking lot between softball games.
“It was just one of those games . . . And I love it . . . And it just grew.”
She’s played mostly locally in Santa Paula and Ventura.
The number of women in the sport is growing along with the general popularity.
“What’s nice about this tournament is that it’s one of the largest women’s tournaments,” Yanez said. “There are 64 teams of women playing Friday night. Which is huge . . . I see more and more [women] at every tournament.”
“It’s a growing women’s sport, and here’s a fun fact: My husband plays in the tournament, too, but we can’t be partners — we are too competitive and it would be a divided household.”
She’ll be playing with Jesse Segovia on Saturday, and on Friday she’s playing in the women’s tournament with Donna Vonch from Indiana.
“Her husband is a senior pro-player, he’s been on ESPN. [Donna] is one of the top women players,” said Yanez, noting that John Karayan, owner of Spencer Mackenzie’s and founder of the Throw Down, connected her with Vonch. “I have this opportunity to play with her, I’m excited.”
She’s also excited to see cornhole grow in her hometown. Yanez said she’s looking forward to the tournament, and seeing so many people participating.
“Everybody loves Ventura. You can’t get better weather . . . and we’ll be right by the beach . . . I’ll leave this weekend meeting more people than I knew and make more friends in the cornhole world.”
“It’s going to be the toughest tournament I’ve ever played in”
Segovia and Yanez will have some fierce competition from Matt Guy of Cincinnati. Frequently referred to as the “King of Cornhole” or the “Babe Ruth of Cornhole,“ it is said (according to American Cornhole lore) that Guy is . . well, the guy who made the sport of cornhole mainstream. Guy will be attending the Throw Down this year for the first time. Other players to keep an eye on are Jordan Cambra and Jason Baldwin, the defending tournament champions who are coming off a big win at the American Cornhole League World Championships in South Carolina three weeks ago.
Another player from farther afield who plans to give the locals a run for their money is Isidro Herrera from Mendota, Illinois. Even though he’s won the Throw Down more than any other player, he agrees that there’s a real advantage for locals.
Herrera has played cornhole since 2005 when he started playing on his nephew’s boards. “When we used to get together, we’d bring them out. I didn’t know what this game was about, but I wanted to learn about it. Then we figured out it was actually a game.”
Two and a half years later, he started playing in competitions, traveling out of state. “It was 2010 when I noticed and thought, oh man, there’s a lot of competition. It’s not just a backyard game.”
He shared that his game has been less than stellar recently. “I’ve been struggling a little bit for the past two years or so. I’m trying to get back my game.” He said when he was at his peak, he was winning 90% of the time. “We have ups and downs. It’s been a struggle with a lot more competition. This weekend is not going to get any easier. It’s going to be the toughest tournament I’ve ever played in; it’s not going to be just a walk in the park”
To prepare for a competition of this level, Hererra said he does “prepare a little bit mentally. I’m going to be out there and it’s going to be tough. I go out there and try my best to win the tournament.” He practiced twice a week to continue to sharpen his game.
Herrera agrees that the locals in Ventura have an advantage due to the weather.
“Most of the year [players in the Midwest] have just been playing inside. I do practice outside. Here in the Midwest it gets so sticky, it’s so muggy . . . The boards are gonna be fast . . . as the sun goes down the boards get sticky.”
Herrera will be playing with his team mate of six years, Ryan Windsor, from Cuba, Illinois. The first two years they came to Ventura, they won it. In subsequent years they failed to reach the top spot, but came back to the invitation-only Tournament of Champions in 2020 for the win.
Naturally, Herrera hopes to win this year, but he is also happy “to see my old friends back in Ventura. It’s gonna be a great weekend.”
“It’s anybody’s game”
The game to the uninitiated may look like just tossing a bag into a hole. But there is a little more to it than that.
“There’s a strategic part and there are defensive plays,” Yanez explained. “Blocking the hole so [your opponent’s bags] don’t go in the hole. You block the hole so they have to go over the top.” She admitted that it may not be “extremely difficult, but if you don’t put in the time and practice, then you’re not consistent.” She emphasized that “there are players out there that can put that bag in the hole every single time.”
There are also different types of bags, with a slippery side and a sticky side.
“I don’t really have a particular strategy. But I always throw the slippery side,” she continued. “I’ve been told it’s harder to control, it can slide off the board.”
The weather impacts the boards, too: “They are fast in the morning and start getting stickier because of the weather.”
Typically, top-level cornhole players start out playing with friends or family. They find that they like it and have a knack for it, and play more to develop their skills and strategy. Segovia, by contrast, found the game in a more roundabout way — and admits that he didn’t even like cornhole at first.
“I got started because of my kids,” he said.
He would play horseshoes with his children and one year, as a Father’s Day gift, they got him a set of boards and bags.
“I didn’t like it, of course. But here we are, four years later, and it’s all because of my kids. I thank them all the time for that, when I won the tournament.”
Why does Segovia love the game so much?
“What I love the most is that you don’t have to be a certain age, for one: Any age can play. We’ve got kids that are 5 . . . We have friends who are 70 to 85 and they still play cornhole. It’s competitive.” He said the sport’s motto is accurate. “Anybody can play. Anybody can win.”
When he and other avid cornhole players are teaching the sport to children, “we say not everybody is a football, basketball or baseball player . . . but you can play cornhole.”
He added that cornhole is a sport that even folks who aren’t into sports can come to love.
Yanez agreed. “All ages can play, it’s just a matter of practicing, the more you practice, the better you get. I like the fact that women can play, men can play, it’s for anybody. Men can play against men, men can play against women. It’s anybody’s game.”