Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Clear Day 76° Clear
News >  Features

Spokane’s ‘Connor the Cornhole Cowboy’ throws for American Cornhole World Championship

July 7, 2022 Updated Thu., July 7, 2022 at 7:37 a.m.

First, Connor Thornberry perfected a smooth throw that stood out when he began as a rookie cornhole player two years ago.

Then out came his signature black Stetson, a birthday gift in September, that makes the 15-year-old noticeable at up to five regional cornhole tournaments a week. His hat – and part-time farm work – led to his competitor’s title: Connor the Cornhole Cowboy.

There’s nothing corny about him. His mostly adult competitors describe Thornberry as a tough opponent in the popular bag-tossing game that’s taken off as a sport, including with ESPN coverage. Thornberry quickly shot through to the ranks of intermediate, competitive and now advanced level, with eyes on turning pro. Recently qualifying, he’s set to leave Aug. 2 to compete in the American Cornhole League World Championships in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

“Connor is definitely one of the top youth players, and he’s also one of the top adult players, even though he’s not an adult,” said Wayne Bullock, a Spokane resident who played against Thornberry on Tuesday at Players & Spectators.

“He’s probably in the top five in this area, northern Idaho and Eastern Washington, because he easily can beat anybody in the top 10 at any given time,” Bullock said. “He’s a tough competitor. One of the things you try to do is block him, and he can’t be blocked. He’ll roll over you, or airmail (straight in the hole). He’s very competent. For his age, he’s a very solid player.”

A University High School student, Thornberry started playing in summer 2020 on a lark, after a friend’s father asked him if he’d be a tournament partner and practice on boards in a backyard. Thornberry kept on going.

“It will be two years in August,” Thornberry said. “It was in the middle of COVID so I was like, ‘What else am I going to do?’ I got stuck on it. I didn’t want to stop playing.

“I play about 25 hours a week, probably.”

Last summer, he’d go from working a few early hours at Utecht Farms, rush home to change, and then practice cornhole throws 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. His first tournament was in Coeur d’Alene on Aug. 17, 2020. He’s not sure where he found his style, although he said other players shared tips.

“I think it came from practice, because I would go every single day,” he said.

Soon, he was part of what he and his mom call “a cornhole community” as sports regulars in the Post Falls area and at Players & Spectators, which has two spaces for tournaments and league play.

His mother, Katrina Melnyk, heard early on from other players that Thornberry seemed a natural.

“When he developed his throw – and everyone has a different style in how they throw – people would tell me ‘he has such a pretty throw,’ ” Melnyk said. “His is flat and kind of glides in.”

The ACL World Championships will run July 29 to Aug. 7 .

“There are certain events you have to qualify for and certain events open to everybody who comes to play,” Thornberry said.

“I qualified for the junior doubles and junior singles USA.”

Thornberry is scheduled to play doubles with Bryson Bland, 12, of Yakima.

“I have played with him before,” Thornberry said. “During the middle of season, when we have these things called regionals, he’ll come up and play.”

Thornberry’s mother said the game is more complex than she first thought, including strategy. “When he started, I just remembered that being backyard barbecue stuff,” she said.

The sport began to move off of lawns about 20 years ago, Thornberry said.

“It’s most popular in the South,” he said. “It came out of the backyard about 20 years ago, but when it really started getting popular was during COVID. That’s when the ACL got its first contract on ESPN, and people started seeing it on TV.”

Thornberry said former Florida teacher Rosie Streker is a pro and makes more money from sponsors and tournament wins. A famous competitor is actor Shemar Moore, from the TV show “S.W.A.T.”

Cornhole uses wooden platforms built with a 6-inch-diameter hole for tossing the bags. Sets of platforms are across a room opposite from each other at a distance of 27 feet, Thornberry said. Contestants take turns pitching their bags at the platforms across that space.

A contestant needs to reach a score of at least 21 points. A bag in the hole scores three points, and a bag on the platform scores one point, but there’s more.

“It’s cancellation scoring, so let’s say you get one in the hole and they get one in the hole, then nobody gets any points,” he said. “Let’s say I have three in and then one on, that’s 10, and if they have two in and one on, that’s seven, so 10 minus seven is three, meaning I’ll get three points.

“Yeah, there’s a lot to it.”

Another strategy is to try to block an opponent’s bag so it can’t go into the hole.

“The goal is to go into the hole most of the time,” he said. “They have what is called airmail; that’s where it just goes straight in without hitting the board. There are two different kinds of games. Some people have a roll game and some people have an airmail game.”

Starting play Tuesday night, he immediately landed four bags in the hole.

Thornberry has gained a couple of sponsors, his mom said, including some support from his part-time employer this summer, Browning Beef, where he helps with cattle and rodeo work. He has a jersey that says, “Cowboy,” and the number 80.

“I always call him 80,” she said. “Like, dude, we need to go and you move like an 80-year-old man. He did that for me.”

The players’ bags are all different, Thornberry said, but follow ACL regulations and its labeling. The bags typically have plastic resin inside, versus corn kernels.

Thornberry said he loves being part of the sport’s community.

“You can go anywhere and everybody will be so positive and building you up,” he said.

People ask him for tips, so he mentors. His mom trusts the regular players they’ve come to know.

“These men and women, they help my son grow, and they treat him like their own son,” she said. “I can’t always be here because of work, but I know he’s in the best hands.”

A single mom, she started a GoFundMe to cover his trip, with funding near a goal of $1,500. Any leftover GoFundMe dollars will go toward future trips. He also has a goal to be on ESPN, which could occur in South Carolina.

“If I get in the top bracket for juniors and doubles, you’ll see me on ESPN toward the end of that tournament,” Thornberry said.

He looked up more information on his phone.

“When you see me on ESPN2, it will be on Aug. 6 at noon South Carolina time.”

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.