Follow the Bouncing Ball: Woodsville Pingpong League Draws a Fast Following

  • Vanessa Cookson, 9, plays pingpong at the Clifford building in Woodsville, N.H. on December 17, 2013. The new program, administered by the Haverhill Recreation Department, has been proved popular among people of all ages. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

    Vanessa Cookson, 9, plays pingpong at the Clifford building in Woodsville, N.H. on December 17, 2013. The new program, administered by the Haverhill Recreation Department, has been proved popular among people of all ages. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Diane Finlay, of Pike, N.H., plays pingpong at the Clifford building in Woodsville, N.H. on December 17, 2013. Diane attends with her husband Jacques, but the new program is popular among people of all ages. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

    Diane Finlay, of Pike, N.H., plays pingpong at the Clifford building in Woodsville, N.H. on December 17, 2013. Diane attends with her husband Jacques, but the new program is popular among people of all ages. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Gloria Yaeger, 16, of Piermont, N.H., and Jacques Finlay, of Pike, N.H., play pingpong while Gloria's mother knits at the Clifford building in Woodsville, N.H. on December 17, 2013. Jacques attends with his wife Diane, while Gloria attends with her younger sister Veronica, underscoring the new club's appeal among people of all ages. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

    Gloria Yaeger, 16, of Piermont, N.H., and Jacques Finlay, of Pike, N.H., play pingpong while Gloria's mother knits at the Clifford building in Woodsville, N.H. on December 17, 2013. Jacques attends with his wife Diane, while Gloria attends with her younger sister Veronica, underscoring the new club's appeal among people of all ages. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Vanessa Cookson, 9, plays pingpong at the Clifford building in Woodsville, N.H. on December 17, 2013. The new program, administered by the Haverhill Recreation Department, has been proved popular among people of all ages. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
  • Diane Finlay, of Pike, N.H., plays pingpong at the Clifford building in Woodsville, N.H. on December 17, 2013. Diane attends with her husband Jacques, but the new program is popular among people of all ages. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
  • Gloria Yaeger, 16, of Piermont, N.H., and Jacques Finlay, of Pike, N.H., play pingpong while Gloria's mother knits at the Clifford building in Woodsville, N.H. on December 17, 2013. Jacques attends with his wife Diane, while Gloria attends with her younger sister Veronica, underscoring the new club's appeal among people of all ages. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

When Jacques Finlay began helping to organize weekly afternoons of ping pong playing sessions at the town of Haverhill’s newly acquired Clifford building, he hoped it would attract players of all ages. He just didn’t think he’d have such a difficult time contending with the youngest of them all.

Finlay, 71 — one of the more experienced players who have come out during the program’s first several weeks — has been struggling to keep up with 9-year-old Vanessa Cookson.

A sprite fourth-grader from neighboring Bath, N.H., Cookson had been practicing at her home for several months prior to joining the group in Woodsville. Her new ping pong table at home was originally intended as a Christmas gift, but her mother couldn’t find anywhere to put it.

“I brought it home, and it was, like, ‘Where are we supposed to hide this?’ ” said Vanessa’s mother, Anita. “How do you hide a pingpong table? It’s huge. That was two months ago. So instead of saving it for Christmas, we decided just to set it up and let her enjoy it right away. That’s how she got so good at it.”

Making the ball bounce to and fro like a jumping-jack firecracker, Cookson has been more than game while taking on her elder opponents. Asked how many times Cookson might beat him during a 10-game set, Finlay’s wife, Diane, jumped in and said, “Ten.”

To that, Jacques Finlay took mild exception. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” he said with a smile. “But she’s definitely one of our top members. She’s good, real good.”

Open to anyone, the informal pingpong games take place Tuesdays from 3-5 p.m. in the Clifford building, a large brick loft originally built as a National Guard armory. Players use a pair of regulation tables — one brand new and recently purchased by the Haverhill recreation department, the other, owned by the Finlays, a bit worn.

“It came with the house we bought in Pike 40 years ago,” Jacques Finlay said. “It’s mostly just sat in the barn.”

A Paris native, Finlay first played the game more than 50 years ago aboard liner ships, which he rode twice a year to attend a boarding school in western Massachusetts. Though competitive against the other riders at the time, he never seriously pursued the activity until recently.

“I was watching a show on PBS and there were these guys in their 70s and 80s who started a pingpong league and were really competitive with it,” Finlay said. “They went to a tournament in China and all kinds of things like that. I said, ‘that looks like a lot of fun.’ ”

Participants volley through warm-up rounds before playing, rotating between the two tables. Sometimes, scores are kept, with the first player to 21 coming out on top. Other times, the players just volley vigorously until they get tired and pass their paddles along to whomever wishes to step in.

“It’s very informal,” Finlay said. “The best part about it is the different age groups that have come in. Vanessa is the youngest, but there’s also been teenagers and a lot of adults. It’s been nice to see a variety of different people coming out.”

Haverhill recreation director Sherri Sargent was happy to help coordinate the league, one of the first major activity series staged in the Clifford building aside from a summer day camp. Ongoing renovations to the space will eventually make it one of the primary indoor venues for recreational activities and other functions in town.

“It’s great to be utilizing the space,” Sargent said. “It’s also great to have a program like this to help introduce people to pingpong. My impression is that it’s kind of a dying game, but it’s a great game because almost anyone can play it.”

Though accessible, pingpong is anything but stationary. The quick reflexes and coordination required to execute well normally keeps players on their toes — and their heart rates inflated.

“After a couple hours playing, pretty much all of us are huffing and puffing,” Diane Finlay said. “It’s more exercise than you might think.”

It’s also helping people get out of the house. Home-schooled teen sisters Gloria and Veronica Yaeger, of Piermont, aren’t experienced with the game, but are taking advantage of the opportunity to interact with others in the area.

“I’d like to play a (team) sport, but I’m trying to graduate next spring so I’ve had a lot of schoolwork,” said Gloria Yaeger, 16. “I’m not very good, but it’s still a lot of fun.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.