Trevor Wenning and Tom Hammerschmith practice cornhole in the backyard of Hammerschmith’s Keizer home.

Correction: The printed version of this story stated Trevor Wenning was a sergeant, he was promoted to lieutenant in 2018. (Sorry, Trevor. Eric)

By day, Lt. Trevor Wenning carries a badge and gun for the Keizer Police Department, but every Friday night he turns his attention to becoming a sharpshooter with a beanbag. 

His work has paid off, too. Wenning is among the top-ranked cornhole players in all of Oregon. 

“Last summer was the first year that we came out here and did this every Friday night instead of throwing darts religiously. That's when I got it, that's when the muscle memory started kicking in,” Wenning said.

Wenning was looking for a new pastime a few years back because softball doubleheaders and tournaments started taking a toll on the bodies of he and his teammates. He connected with another acquaintance, Joe Ross, who wanted to start up a cornhole league. 

“I learned about it through tailgating down at OSU games,” Ross said. “I started seeing cornhole boards, then I made some for myself. Pretty soon I wondered why we weren’t playing when we weren’t tailgating.”

The Cherry City Cornhole League was born not long after. It started with 16 players, there’s now 70 regular players with a waiting list, and Ross is considering adding a third night. 

Modern cornhole evolved from older games and is played with two sets of bags, two boards and two to eight players. Competitors take turns trying to sink 6-by-6-inch bags in holes on the boards that are placed 27 feet apart. Points are scored by landing bags on the board (1 point) or in the hole (3 points). Players alternate between sides of the field and can cancel each others points by scoring ones of their own. The game ends at 21 points. The game took its name from corn that once filled the bags, but beans or plastic pellets took its place as players discovered the corn dust that built up on the boards and affected play. 

The rules are relatively straightforward, but playing strategically begins immediately after deciding who goes first. 

“If I’m right handed, I want to pick the right side of the board so I can throw over the center of the board. If my opponent is also right-handed, they’ll have to throw at an angle,” Wenning said. “That can dictate a lot of other things.”

The ideal throw is called an “air mail,” it’s akin to swishing a ball in basketball and means the bag goes directly into the hole without sliding on the board. Players can also “bowl” bags into the hole by hitting lower on the boards and sliding them into the hole. Professional cornhole bags come with a slick side and a sticky side that can be key to blocking or sliding past opponents’ bags.

While scoring points quickly is often the goal because it puts pressure on your opponent, the board becomes cluttered with other bags that players need to shoot around. Sometimes, it doesn’t happen by accident. 

“In tournaments where you can watch the brackets, you can scout opponents and see if they are shooting in a certain spot most of the time. If they are, you can put a bag in that location and force them to adjust,” Wenning said. 

There’s also psychological warfare. Asking a competitive player “what their number is” can erect the a subliminal roadblock. The number in question is the one that the player most often gets hung up on during play.

“If someone says their number is 18, they might end up throwing five ends trying to get those last three points,” Wenning said. “Ends” are cornhole lingo for throwing a complete set of bags from one side field before switching to the other. 

While players can run hot and cold as in any other sport, Wenning said, the key is not giving up. 

“I’ve been down 18-6 in a game and come back to win,” he said.

The Cherry City Cornhole League meets Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Salem Columbus Club at 725 Shipping Street N.E. Interested players can contact Ross through the league’s Facebook page.

“We usually just try and get started around 6:45 and then I'll run a little after 9 p.m.,” Ross said. 

For those interested in dabbling in the sport beyond the backyard, the Shangri-La, a group that supports those with developmental disabilities, is hosting the fourth annual Capital City Cornhole Classic on Saturday, Sept. 7, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Spectators are welcome and some limited spots are available to participate in the competitive and social divisions, there’s also a number of slots still available in the newly-created youth division. Registration is available at www.shangrilaoregon.org. 

Ashley Erb, community engagement coordinator for Shangri-La, said the goal this year is raising $10,000, but the event pays out in a variety of ways for Shangri-La clients. 

“It’s about people interacting with each other, who maybe wouldn't necessarily cross paths, and the understanding and awareness that happens through those interactions,” Erb said. 

In addition to the formal competitions, organizers set up an obstacle course that gives attendees a chance toss bags double the distance of a normal field or make an air mail shot. Completing challenges earns participants raffle prizes