An introduction to the Summit County pickleball scene
August 12, 2015
"We were just chalkin' then," Bill Barbuto said with a rich cackle.
The president of the Summit County Pickleball Club says his chosen sport has grown drastically in Summit since its organized inception in 2011. Back then, just four years ago, SCPC only had about 20 to 30 members. They played their games on chalk-drawn courts and struggled to find space.
But, as membership grew, so did pickleball's legitimacy. Eventually, SCPC was able to convince Summit County officials to paint pickleball lines on four different tennis courts throughout the area, and, nowadays, the game is truly booming. SCPC hosts outdoor pick-up games seven days a week and boasts membership topping 150 players.
"The towns are very excited about it," Barbuto said. "We have over 50 new members this year."
In early August, I decided to play in one of these pick-up games to see what all the buzz was about. I hadn't played much pickleball before, and, as I cast my eyes across the Summit Middle School tennis courts, I felt intimidated. Almost 40 players stood before me, filling the air with laughs and the bassy, yet ping-pong-esque sound of pickleball. As I started to play, however, my fear evaporated, and I found the game easy to learn. Slowly, I started to understand the allure of a sport named after a bumpy green veggie.
Ball for baby boomers
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Primarily played as a doubles game in recreation play, pickleball requires little running and, instead, places more emphasis on hand-eye coordination and dexterity. These aspects make it a life-long sport, one that can be easily learned at almost any age.
The avid following pickleball has found in Summit County is a microcosm of its budding popularity worldwide. As one of the fastest-growing sports in the nation, pickleball now has around 400,000 active players, according to the USA Pickleball Association. The game's easy accessibility has gained a foothold with the aging baby-boomer population.
"It's not as hard as tennis for movement, so I think older people can play it more easily," pickleball player Connie Andres said.
"It doesn't take a great deal of practice," Barbuto said. "You get in there and have a good time and work on your ability as it comes. We have a guy in his late eighties who comes out all the time. We also get people who have never done anything — never played a sport their whole lives — and still come out and be competitive and have fun."
Barbuto, a New York City fire chief for more than 30 years, retired, moved West and, almost immediately, becoming a daily pickleball player.
"My girlfriend showed me it one day and I was instantly sucked in," he said in a thick New York accent. "It's great for me because I've got a bad knee, but I can still play and get my daily workout."
The hybrid game, played with a racquet-paddle, was born in 1965 in Bainbridge, Washington, as a cure for children's summertime boredom. Despite its name, the only thing the game has in common with dilled cucumbers is a dog named Pickles. It earned its name when the dog would steal the founder's game ball.
Most players compare pickleball to tennis, played on a badminton-sized court that's roughly one-half of a tennis court. Scoring is similar: two bounces in the play area or one bounce outside of it results in a point for the other team.
Possibly due to these similarities, players of the two sports have a rumored rivalry, but Barbuto believes this supposed tension is a bit overstated.
"Sure, sometimes, certain tennis players think we're stealing their courts or get annoyed because our lines are on them, but, for the most part, we have a good relationship," Barbuto said. "In fact, many people play both… Tennis players say it improves their quick skills at the net."
Rivalry or not, the town of Dillon has plans that might help extinguish potential court conflicts: a proposal that includes four 30- to 60-foot pickleball-specific courts near downtown. However, construction has been in the "planning phase" since 2013, according to Dillon Public Works Director Scott O'Brien, with little progress made in the past two years.
"Pickleball courts are planned to meet increased demand," he said.
Back to the court
As a newcomer to pickleball, I found that my tennis background was more detrimental than helpful. I was under-striking the whiffle ball with the plastic paddle and constantly hitting the net, even though it was still shorter than those in regulation tennis.
My biggest frustration of all, though, came from not remembering one odd rule: The ball must bounce once on both sides of the net before a player can hit it.
I let out an exasperated "Aghhh!" and punched my paddle with disgust after losing yet another point because of the rule.
"This isn't tennis," my partner chided jokingly.
"Yeah, I noticed," I grumbled, giving off the air of annoyed 6-year-old who hasn't gotten his way. Perhaps these small differences also lead to contention between tennis players and pickleball players.
Frustrations and bad tennis habits aside, I still enjoyed pickleball. I never suspected that such a humorously-named sport would require mental agility. A slight change in touch drastically alters a shot, which can give the best players an astonishing advantage. Also, when positioned close to the net, the game becomes very similar to ping-pong, with quick returns that are often won on an unexpected spike.
"Since you play on such a small court, you need to rely on the mental aspect more to beat someone," local player Linda Thompson explained. "You can't always rely on athletic ability or overpowering."
The SCPC hosted a fun tournament Aug 12-13, one of several held during the summer. Participants were randomly paired with different partners from start to finish. The blind-draw format evens out the playing field, giving every participant a legitimate chance at winning.
If you don't want to play in a large-scale, social environment, you can still play on your personal time. Paddles are provided in lock-boxes at Summit Middle School, the Dillon Tennis Courts and Silverthorne's Trent Park. Contact the towns of Frisco, Dillon and Silverthorne for pass codes.
Even though I can't say pickleball is now my favorite pastime, I found it to be entertaining. With each game I progressed, and, by the end of the day, I was competitive amongst experienced players. If you're looking for a new sport held in a friendly, social environment, do like many others in Summit and put the pickle to your ball.
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