(Photo by John Cook) Ax-throwing coach Zach Pendleton of Frankenmuth (left) watches as Dylan Schmitzer (center) and Shawn Peters, both of Clio, practice their ax-throwing skills inside Candlelite Sports & Banquet Center. The bowling and banquet facility in Bridgeport Township is starting an ax-throwing league, with $1,000 going to the league champion. Players may call 989-577-7700 for information.

Bowling with an ‘edge’: Ax-throwing comes to Candlelite

Players still roll bowling balls inside Candlelite Sports & Banquet Center, but this month, competitors began hurling axes into wooden targets.

“I’ve thrown axes all the time just playing around in the woods, but this is only my second time throwing them here,” said Shawn Peters, 19, of Clio, joining his friend, 18-year-old Dylan Schmitzer of Clio, for an ax-throwing practice last week at Candlelite, 6817 Dixie Highway in Saginaw County’s Bridgeport Township.

Players are sought for a new Tuesday night ax-throwing league at Candlelite, which shut down in the spring before the 42,000-square-foot facility was purchased by Brandon and Nicole Hornung of Tuscola Township, who reopened it in the fall and renovated it.

The Hornungs removed eight lanes from Candlelite’s bowling alley, which still features 24 lanes. In the spot where the eight lanes were, the couple created “The Arena” – an area for ax-throwing, cornhole games and football bowling or “fowling” contests.

A graffiti artist, DeVaughn Collins of the Saginaw area, painted a mural and other signs inside the complex, which serves food and beverages.

“I know ax-throwing is a new fad that’s taking shape, and a lot of ax-throwing places are opening up downstate in the Detroit metro area,” said Brandon Hornung, a 1992 Vassar High School graduate and owner of Capital Stoneworks, also in Bridgeport Township.

“It seems to be a real popular draw, so we decided to try it here, and try to find a different venue to draw people into the facility other than just bowling. Not everybody’s a bowler, and if youhaven’t thrown an ax before, it’s a ton of fun.

“It’s like throwing darts but with a lot more aggressiveness behind it. There’s something primitive about the feeling behind it.”

Those interested in ax-throwing or bowling leagues, or in reserving space in one of Candlelite’s two banquet centers, can call 989-577-7700. The ax-throwing league requires a $50 buy-in and $10 weekly fee, with the league winner receiving a $1,000 prize.

A newcomer can learn the sport by paying $15 to throw axes for an hour under the supervision of one of three coaches: Zach Pendleton, Trace LaBrenz or Keenan McCrumb.

“It’s an extremely safe event to have,” Brandon Hornung said. “They have 10 minutes of instruction and coaches kind of go over some techniques. As those start to do it when they’ve never done it before, the coach will kind of correct them on some techniques, so they can have success. It really doesn’t take long. Usually after five to 10 throws, people start sticking axes (in targets).”

An ax-throwing match consists of two rounds – with five throws per round – as players hurl axes at a wooden target 12 feet away, hoping to hit the bull’s-eye in the center for six points. A player also receives points for landing an ax in circles farther away from the bull’s-eye. On the fifth throw of each round, a player can collect eight extra points by landing an ax in one of two blue “killshot” dots – though he must declare he intends to hit a killshot spot in order to score the extra points.

“I give them safety instructions and tell them what they need to do, safety-wise, and demonstrate a couple throws for them,” said Pendleton, 25, of Frankenmuth. “I pretty much tell them what I know that I like, and what works for me. But what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for Joe and Bob. I tell people ‘If that’s not comfortable for you, then try this, or try that.’”

Pendleton said the ax-throwing venue was built to World Axe Throwing League (WATL) specifications.

“The great thing was the regulation boards for the targets needed to be 2-by-10s, and all the framing that was under the eight bowling lanes (that were removed) were 2-by-10s,” Hornung said.

Boards in the targets are replaced as they wear out. Some first-time ax-throwers were quick studies when trying the sport at company Christmas parties at Candlelite in recent weeks, according to Hornung.

“When a group of eight people come in, for example, you’ve got usually two or three people in that group that really get it down,” Pendleton said. “Then they’ll start playing games in between them.

“We tell them ‘Hey, we’ve got a sign-up sheet up there, so go register for the league.’ It’s just a matter of people learning about what it is. A lot of people have been intimidated. I guess throwing a deadly object through the air gets a couple people nervous at first. But once you get in and get throwing and get the hang of it, it’s super easy.”

The ax-throwing area consists of wooden targets attached to a wooden wall, creating “lanes” for ax-throwers to play the sport. Barriers, made of wood and chain-link fences, separate each pair of throwing lanes and are designed to protect competitors retrieving axes from adjacent lanes. During a match, after one competitor has tossed his ax, he must wait until his opponent hurls his ax before contestants retrieve their weapons.

The WATL is the organization “that you see if you turn on ESPN on a Saturday afternoon to watch any ax-throwing,” Hornung said.

“Eventually, if we get sanctioned with the WATL, I’d love to host a regional tournament. But we’re starting off this year with our first league season, ending with a league tournament. It’s the same thing with cornhole. We want to promote the leagues and host more tournaments.”

The Hornungs have hired Wendy Sebert of Millington to manage the Candlelite complex.

“She’s doing a phenomenal job getting this thing off the ground,” said Brandon Hornung, who said his daughter, Madison Hornung, “is involved with marketing and is on the serving staff here.”

The Hornungs have involved a variety of Thumb-area businesses in the Candlelite project. They buy their axes from Brad Polega’s Sebewaing Ace Hardware. Vassar Building Center supplied lumber for the renovation, with paint from Vassar/Frankenmuth True Value Hardware.

Hornung Construction of Vassar, owned by Brandon Hornung’s father, Henry Hornung, “did a lot of demolition and the roof repair, and built the backdrop walls (in ‘The Arena’),” Brandon Hornung said.

Candlelite hosts open bowling nightly. It’s also home for bowling teams representing Frankenmuth, Bridgeport and Birch Run high schools.

“We missed out on a lot of the bowling leagues because of the timing, but we knew that going into it,” Brandon Hornung said. “We already have had a lot of the leagues that have recommitted into coming back here next fall. We did have a few leagues that are starting after Jan. 1 and are coming back for the second half of their season.”

Ax-throwing, however, is catching the attention of some visitors to the complex, which features a diner, bar and game room.

“I think it’s pretty sweet they added this activity, because you don’t see any other places around here that have it,” said Peters, waiting to toss an ax under the direction of coach Pendleton.

“We’ve been here many times in the past when it was just Candlelite bowling lanes,” added Schmitzer, before hurling an ax.

“But this area is definitely a nice improvement.”

Tom Gilchrist is a staff writer for The Advertiser. He can be reached at gilchrist@tcadvertiser.com.

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