Inside the world of cornhole playing with Minnesota's first professional player

A person poses for a portrait photo
Lexi Hugeback practices throwing bags, often for hours, in her parents home south of Kasson, Minn. She's on a mission to be the best of the best.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

Lexi Hugeback didn't even know professional cornhole was an option until she was 19, when she saw pros play at one of her first tournaments. 

"You guys are playing professional cornhole, like are you serious, this is a real thing?” she remembers thinking. 

The pros took note of Hugeback as well. 

"They watched me play. And they were like, you need to get into this. Like, your talent is outrageous for just starting, really. So that kind of flipped a switch in my head,” she says. “So, I tried a year of trying to get better becoming pro, and I did it in one year." 

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Hugeback, now 21, made history when she qualified at a tournament in September. She is one of 250 professional players in the U.S. And one of only 32 women.  

Going pro means traveling the country to play events televised on ESPN and CBS. It also means sponsorship deals and cash prizes in the tens of thousands. Even before going pro, Hugeback was paying for college with her winnings. She also bought her first dog with prize money, Lulu the corgi. 

“It's a simple game when you start off learning, but then now, at the upper level, it's a lot more intricate,” Hugeback says. “I kinda like that you have to think your way into situations and also get your way out of them by thinking.” 

The rise of Hugeback, who is from Kasson, coincides with a growing community of competitive cornhole players in the state. Or, as those in the community call them, “bags” players.  

While cornhole meccas like South Carolina and Florida still lead, many will tell you how much the sport has grown exponentially here since the pandemic.  

A person holds a decorated cornhole bag
Lexi Hugeback shows off her bag for cornhole.
Alex Cipolle | MPR News

Darrell Bittner is Minnesota’s regional tournament director for the American Cornhole League, the sport’s governing body. He says the ACL has only had a presence in the state for the last year or so. 

Hugeback recently played in a regional tournament in Montevideo run by Bittner. Dozens of colorful and polished boards were set up in the gym of the Minnesota National Guard Training and Community Center. There were singles and doubles events, so players lined up in cozy groupings, standing side by side. The thud of bags stuffed with resin beads hitting wood filled the room.  

Watching Hugeback play was her good friend Hayden Ferguson, 16. The two met playing cornhole and team up sometimes for doubles. He was at the winning game in South Dakota that started her pro career in September 

“It made me tear up a bit, I ain’t gonna lie,” Ferguson says. “I knew she was going to get it sometime, but I didn't think it was going to happen at that moment. That day was a very good day.” 

A person poses for a portrait photo
“Anyone can play and anyone can win,“ Hugeback says. “It's so much fun, and you're going to have some lifelong friends coming out of this game. It's more than just throwing a bag in the hole.” 
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

According to Ferguson, Hugeback still needs to work on her mental game. Hugeback is the first to agree. While most of us think of it as a party game, for competitive players the sport is 90 percent mental focus. And strategy. 

She prefers not to chit chat with opponents, or teammates if she’s playing doubles. Before each throw, Hugeback takes a quiet moment with the bag, bouncing it gently in her hands. Other players use their whole bodies, but Hugeback is reserved, throwing flat and straight with surgical precision.  

She also plays defensively. She’ll roll her bags over an opponent’s or block the hole with her bag. 

Bittner explains her strategy and technique. Hugeback uses a carpet-style bag, which is slower because the material is rougher. It is designed to roll over other bags on a board. 

“So, what her style does is frustrate her opponents,” he says, “because if you put what they call a ‘blocker’ out in front of the hole, she will just roll over the top of it into the hole. And then she can come right behind and just clean up her block or your block.” 

He adds that “as the pro players progress, like Lexi, they start to learn more and more shots, just like a baseball player. There’s a roll bag or a cut bag or a hook where a baseball player might have a fastball or curveball or slider.” 

People play cornhole
Lexi Hugeback and Jon Dahlstrom play cornhole at the Minnesota National Guard Training and Community Center in Montevideo, Minn. in December.
Alex Cipolle | MPR News

One of her tournament opponents is Dia Lee, another rising player in Minnesota cornhole. Lee says she must constantly adapt her strategy in games against Hugeback. 

“Every match I've ever played against Lexi, it's always been a tough one, and she's always beat me, like very big,” Lee says. “So, knowing that she can roll, it's kind of like you think about strategy as well. Like do you want to block her?” 

Despite her refined technique, Hugeback describes herself as an emotional player. Even when she’s winning it can look like she’s losing. She’ll throw her hands in the air or gripe at herself.  

She says it’s a disadvantage. 

“If I know my opponent next to me is just having a hard time and they're visibly showing it, I'm gonna take advantage of it.” 

A person  practices throwing bags
Lexi Hugeback, now 21, made history when she qualified at a tournament in September. She is one of 250 professional players in the U.S. And one of only 32 women.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

She compares cornhole to basketball, another sport she plays. There she has a team. In cornhole, by contrast, even if she’s playing doubles, it’s an individual sport. 

“It's a different competitiveness for me. So, I mean, this is more like a singles game. And like, if I mess up. I'm the reason why we lost.” 

Hugeback says Jason Bonde, her basketball coach at Rochester Community and Technical College, is coaching her in cornhole, too — particularly on the mental aspects.  

After a January basketball practice, the two sat together at a conference table in the college’s sports center. They discussed how a lot of the skills and strategies that lead the Yellowjackets to be the number one ranked junior college division three team in the nation can be applied to cornhole. 

“She does the same thing in cornhole that she does in basketball: When she makes a mistake, and she knows about it, her body language screams I made a mistake,” Bonde explained. “But it's an ongoing process with her. When you're 21, your emotions can get to the best of you.” 

Bonde encourages Hugeback, who is a prolific cornhole TikToker, to use these videos to do more than garner a reputation, but to also review her skills. 

“Let's also use that as an advantage to help you in other aspects of the game other than just the likes and people watching it,” he said to Hugeback. “Take what you're doing, and then think about why you're doing that versus just doing it because there's no pressure, like ‘we're just practicing. Okay, I'm going to do this shot.’ Well, would you do that in a game?”

According to Bonde, she’s already made a lot of progress. 

“She's considered one of the best in the world. Not too many people can say that about anything. Let alone at 21,” he says. 

People play cornhole together
Lexi Hugeback and Dia Lee, left, play cornhole at the Minnesota National Guard Training and Community Center in Montevideo, Minn. in December.
Alex Cipolle | MPR News

After the January basketball practice, and after talking with her coach, Lexi then went to her parents’ living room in Hayfield. There she has logged countless hours refining her game, and, upon arriving, she continued to practice. Lulu the corgi watched. Family and pets have had to dodge her bean bag missiles. 

She chatted with her father, Mike. They discussed how Hugeback first started playing about six years ago on family trips to the Yogi Bear Jellystone Campground in Austin, Minn.

There they played on “junky” boards with “junky” bags. Hugeback said that she’s pretty sure the bags were filled with actual corn or beans, not the resin beads used in competitive play.  

Hugeback sat next to a cat tower filled with ACL pro bags, made by one of her sponsors, emblazoned with her name. 

A person throws a bag
“It's a simple game when you start off learning, but then now, at the upper level, it's a lot more intricate,” Hugeback says. “I kinda like that you have to think your way into situations and also get your way out of them by thinking.”
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

Her father, an avid bags player himself, recalled watching the game where his daughter qualified as a pro. He and her mother couldn’t travel to the tournament, so they watched a live stream.  

“My wife tries to not watch because it brings her bad luck,” he said. “But then I jumped out of my chair and she jumped into my arms. It was pretty cool.” 

It was hard won, after all.  

Hugeback had made several attempts before to go pro through other qualifying channels like competing at the World Championships in South Carolina and through an application process with the ACL.  

“I was on a mission. I was going on a tear. I had my last chance to go pro this year,” Hugeback says. “The nerves came, but I definitely showed up to play. And I did it.” 

In the process, she says her favorite part has been becoming part of the tightknit cornhole community, both locally and nationally, meeting players and fans around the country. Her advice for folks looking to get into bags? 

“Anyone can play and anyone can win,“ she says. “It's so much fun, and you're going to have some lifelong friends coming out of this game. It's more than just throwing a bag in the hole.”