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Low-key sport pickleball sparks fervent passion among Upper Valley players, surges in popularity

  • Laurie Welch, of Norwich, left, taps paddles with Mary Ellen Rigby, of Etna, right, after a game of pickleball at the Maxfield Sports Complex in Hartford, Vt., on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • From left, Paul Donnellan, of Lebanon, N.H., Ned Harris, CCBA program director, Helen Prussian, of Hartland, Vt., and Jo Steele, of Lyme, N.H., play pickleball at the Carter Community Building Association's Witherell Recreation Center in Lebanon on Thursday, July 21, 2022. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • From left, Ned Harris, CCBA program director, Jo Steele, of Lyme, N.H., Helen Prussian, of Hartland, Vt., and Paul Donnellan, of Lebanon, N.H., play pickleball at the Carter Community Building Association's Witherell Recreation Center in Lebanon on Thursday, July 21, 2022. The CCBA opened four outdoor pickleball courts this year, in addition to the four courts they have inside. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • Mary Ellen Rigby, or Etna, reaches to return a high volley during a game of pickleball at the Maxfield Sports Complex in Hartford, Vt., on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Helen Prussian, right, and Tom Roberts, left, are among a group of Pickleball enthusiasts living at Cobb Hill Cohousing in Hartland, Vt., who set up a court in a multi-use attic room of the community’s common house last winter due to the lack of indoor courts in the area. The net was removed when play moved back outside, but the lines remain where Prussian and Roberts stood for a portrait on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Women from a pickleball group organized through the Bugbee Senior Center and Hartford Parks and Recreation tap paddles with courtesy at the close of a game at the Maxfield Sports Complex in Hartford, Vt., on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. From left are Barb Middleton, of Plainfield, Bonnie Fields, of Wilder, Mary Gentry, of Wilder, and Anne D'Aveni, of Hanover. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Charlotte LeClair, of West Windsor, left, talks with Mary Ellen Rigby, of Etna, right, during a break in play on the pickleball courts at Maxfield Sports Complex with a group from the Bugbee Senior Center on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/6/2022 11:54:13 PM
Modified: 8/6/2022 11:50:55 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — If you stop by the tennis courts at Maxfield Sports Complex anytime from dawn to dusk, there’s a good chance you’ll hear it: the gentle thwack of a hollow ball hitting a paddle.

It sounds a little higher-pitched than a tennis ball, but deeper than a pingpong ball. The sound heralds pickleball, a game that has exploded in popularity the last two years in the Upper Valley. That trend is perhaps best illustrated at Maxfield, where Annette Lepine, of Windsor, has overseen Tuesday and Thursday night pickleball gatherings since the spring of 2020.

“At the time, it wasn’t that big. If we had 15 people show up a night, we were doing well,” said Lepine, who started playing pickleball four years ago after learning about it from a friend at their 30th high school reunion.

Now, 35 to 45 people often show up to play from April to October, and Lepine’s email list has grown from around 20 to more than 130. New players show up every week, ranging in age from 18 to 80-plus.

“I think it’s a sport (where) you don’t have to have a lot of athletic capabilities,” Lepine said. “You don’t have to be fast or super-athletic.”

Pickleball is a paddle sport invented more than 50 years ago on Bainbridge Island in Washington by congressman Joel Pritchard, businessman Bill Bell and Barney McCallum. It was named after “pickle boat” races — rowers who did not make varsity crew teams at nearby University of Washington would compete against each other in thrown-together races, according to a retelling in Pickleball Magazine. Pritchard’s wife came up with the name to describe the way pickleball draws on different racket sports.

Since then, pickleball has grown to a nationwide phenomenon, even if many have never even heard of it.

“When we first came here, I had no clue what pickleball was. I thought it was a joke, to be quite honest,” said Todd Webber, chair of the Eastman Recreation Committee.

Then he and his wife attended an open house at the pickleball courts at Eastman.

“It is amazing how many people are into it, how many people play it,” he said.

The basics

Part of the appeal of pickleball is how simple it is to pick up. It is usually played in pairs. The paddles are smaller than tennis rackets but bigger than pingpong paddles and relatively light. The ball resembles a wiffle ball, hollow with holes. Two pickleball courts can fit on one tennis court. The net is smaller and lower than in tennis. Points are scored when one player lands the ball within the lines on the other side of the court without being returned. There are other rules governing bounces and volleys that players pick up along the way.

“It’s relatively easy in terms of skills to learn just the basics,” said Ned Harris, program director at the CCBA in Lebanon. “The hardest thing is learning the rules, which are a little wonky and unusual, but once you learn the rules and you’ve got a few of these skills down, you’re good to go.”

Most matches last 10 to 15 minutes.

“You can have some matches that’ll last 20-plus minutes,” Lepine said. “If the four people are really on the same playing field, it can go quite a while.”

The startup cost is also minimal. Hartford has paddles for people to borrow, but those who choose to buy their own can find a decent one for around $50. No special shoes are required, but most players wear sneakers.

“It’s a very inexpensive sport, and I think that’s another appeal to it,” Lepine said. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money.”

Beginners truly welcome

On a sunny, warm Wednesday morning in late June, more than a dozen pickleball players gathered at Maxfield. Four beginner players, including Charlotte LeClair, of West Windsor, set up on a court and listened to instructions from Bonnie Fields.

LeClair, 72, started playing pickleball this spring after being introduced to it by her daughter.

“I love the energy of everyone,” LeClair said. “It’s fun. You see people smile.”

LeClair is part of a group of (mostly) people older than 60 who play Wednesday mornings as part of a program started this spring by Hartford’s Bugbee Senior Center.

“The first time we advertised it, our phone rang off the hook,” said Susan Manly, volunteer/activities coordinator at Bugbee.

Thirty people signed up, and 24 showed up. Manley compared it to shuffleboard, another sport made popular by older adults.

“That’s how I’ve seen it … that this is the new shuffleboard,” she said. “This has been good for us in the sense of bringing in new people to Bugbee, not just the lunch crowd.”

In a short time, it has quickly become one of the center’s most popular activities.

“Nothing can eclipse bingo in terms of popularity,” Manley said. “Bingo is, like, sacred, but this is getting there.”

People pick up pickleball for a variety of reasons. Some are tennis players who are looking to add another sport to their repertoire or have injuries that have made it difficult for them to keep playing tennis. Others have been introduced to pickleball by their adult children, who picked it up during the pandemic.

“It started out more as a social (activity) because you can talk,” Fields said. “It wasn’t meant to be competitive.”

Maureen Brentrup, of Hanover, began playing pickleball this spring with her husband after they played with their daughter and son-in-law while visiting them in North Carolina.

“It’s not hard to pick up,” she said. “We thought it would be something fun to do together.”

Laurie Welch, of Norwich, started playing this spring due to “friend and family pressure,” she said. “I had to play.”

She continued because she liked being outside and getting exercise.

“I’m not a really competitive person, so I’m looking for the fun in it,” she said. “It’s healthy. It’s a healthy thing to do. It’s inclusive of everyone.”

Generational appeal

In his 30 years working in recreation, Scott Hausler has witnessed a lot of trends. He’s seen tennis rise and fall in popularity. He’s seen ultimate Frisbee take hold and cornhole go from a low-key backyard game to structured play.

But Hausler, Hartford’s director of parks and recreation, has never seen anything like pickleball. It is now the most popular adult sport in the Rec Department’s history.

“It’s competitive, but I don’t know what it is about it. It seems just to cross so many age boundaries,” Hausler said.

At 28, Courtney Fehsenfeld is one of the younger regular players at Maxfield. She picked up pickleball while visiting family last Christmas and joined the Maxfield group this spring. Fehsenfeld plays basketball with the men’s 50-and-older group over the winter in Hartford. She turned to pickleball for the summer.

“I just showed up with my $2 and met about 50 people from town who I haven’t met before,” Fehsenfeld said. “I love athletics as a way to meet new people.”

Participants typically switch partners after each round, which can lead to more conversation. After all, everyone already has something in common.

“I found that it’s really easy to make friends with my peer group and my age group in a normal setting, but I found in pickleball it’s much easier to make friends with people who are from a variety of generations,” Fehsenfeld said, then added with a laugh: “It must be all the trash talking. It brings people together.”

Building infrastructure

Organizations and recreation departments are trying to keep up with the demand by installing pickleball courts on tennis courts. The pickleball lines are a different color — yellow is acceptable; blue is better — which let them stand out against the white lines common on tennis courts.

“A lot of that infrastructure, at least to get the sport going, is right there,” said Webber, the Eastman Recreation Committee chair.

Eastman is currently renovating and rebuilding its pickleball courts. When it reopens, there will be six new courts.

This year, Hartford spent $800 to $1,000 to paint pickleball lines on two tennis courts, which will create four new pickleball courts, Hausler said. Pickleball players chipped in for the portable nets, which cost $250 to $300. Five years ago, Hartford had two pickleball courts; now it will have eight.

“I could probably use another two or three,” Lepine said.

Hausler and Lepine said so far tennis and pickleball players have been able to share the courts. A set schedule is not yet necessary. Hausler said having Lepine coordinate who plays on which courts on Tuesday and Thursday nights helps the program run smoothly.

“That’s a huge benefit, but I see it blooming so much that we’re going to have to possibly look at some areas of our parks to add some courts in the future,” Hausler said. “I suspect the tennis courts at Maxfield will end up being completely pickleball soon, as much as the demand is.”

This year, the CCBA opened four pickleball courts at its outdoor sports complex. The CCBA also has four indoor courts.

“We have an extremely active pickleball community throughout the winter months,” Harris said.

With so much demand, indoor court space is hard to come by. Prior to the pandemic, Hartford arranged to rent indoor court space from Our Court Tennis Club in White River Junction.

“We really do need a designated indoor facility that could just be for pickleball,” Lepine said. “It’s grown so much.”

A loyal following

On a recent Thursday night in Lebanon, Harris, of the CCBA, joined Jo Steele, Helen Prussian and Paul Donnellan to demonstrate how to play pickleball. The match was fast-paced and the players had to work against the wind, which was nudging the lightweight ball in unpredictable directions.

“You try to play the wind,” Donnellan said.

He was partnered with Prussian. After missing a shot, Donnellan let out a sigh.

“I didn’t yell at you either,” Prussian said.

“And I appreciate that,” Donnellan replied. “I know under your breath you’re thinking it.”

It was all in good fun. Prussian, of Hartland, and Steele, of Lyme, have been playing pickleball for around four years. They often play six days a week, each morning at Maxfield and “sometimes twice a day,” Prussian said. Both played tennis and took up pickleball after being introduced to it by friends.

Their dedication is strong. Last winter, Prussian created an indoor court in a community room at Cobb Hill CoHousing, where she lives. Prussian and Steele often brave the cold to play outside.

“It got us through COVID,” Steele said. “It also solidified some friendships.”

“There’s a camaraderie in pickleball that I’ve not had in tennis,” she added.

Donnellan, of Lebanon, started playing in February after taking lessons at the CCBA. Now he plays multiple times a week.

“Every day I learn something new,” he said. Often that learning takes place during a match. It’s not unusual for an opposing player to give another advice.

That kindness, that sense of belonging, is at the root of what draws people to pickleball. There’s competition, but at the end of each match all players meet in the center of the court to tap rackets and say good game.

“Some great friendships have come out of it,” Lepine said. “I tell everyone, you want to meet nice people, go find a pickleball group.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.




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