Having a (pickle) ball

LOW pickleball players (from left) Clark Munsell and Liz Downey take on Tena Marangi and Carol Brown at the net. Players are not permitted to step into the “non-volley zone” near the net unless the ball bounces there.

The latest in a series on Orange County residents and their favorite sporting activities.

The sun was shining, the spiffy new courts at Lake of the Woods were full of players and Dee Knapp was eager to explain the appeal of pickleball.

“I love the exercise and getting the fresh air,” she said between games. “It can be competitive, but we just have a good time. And I just love the people.”

Knapp took to the paddle sport quickly after she began playing in June. She was among several dozen players on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony at Lake of the Woods (LOW) last Wednesday.

With a breeze rippling across the six new courts and a crowd of jubilant players behind them, Clifton D. Wilks, president of the LOW Board of Directors, and Tena Marangi, chair of the LOW pickleball club, sliced through the ribbon with their paddles. Then, within a few minutes, the clack-clack sound of games in progress once more filled the air.

A hybrid of tennis and pingpong played on a court the size of a badminton court, pickleball was created in the mid-1960s by a man named Joel Pritchard and his family and friends in Washington state.

It can be played by two people or four, but the doubles version is more common. Players use hard paddles and a ball similar to a Wiffle ball. The server begins the point with an underhanded serve, and the ball must bounce on the receiver’s side and then on the server’s side before anyone can hit the ball in the air. The “two-bounce” rule takes away the advantage a strong server has in tennis and tends to lengthen points.

Traditional scoring allows only the serving side to score points, but a shift toward “rally scoring” allows either side to earn points no matter who is serving.

In recent years, interest in pickleball has grown across the country and around the world, and it is extremely popular at LOW. Over the past two years, the number of LOW players has surged from around 25 to more than 200.

The tremendous increase is due in large part to Tena Marangi, chair of the LOW pickleball club and co-chair of the LOW pickleball/tennis advisory committee, and Greg Stoner, lead volunteer pickleball instructor and self-described “student of pickleball.”

“Come here, take my paddle!”

A lifelong athlete who has played tennis for 55 years, Marangi knew nothing about pickleball until a couple of years ago when a friend began urging her to try it. One day, while Marangi was wrapping up a yoga class at LOW, her friend approached, pickleball paddle in hand.

“She said, ‘Come here, come here, take my paddle! This is pickleball! Just hit the ball when it comes to you,’” Marangi recalled.

And thus another pickleball fanatic was born. Marangi began competing against advanced male players at LOW, because she hit the ball as hard as they did.

When she became chair of the pickleball club, she decided to lobby LOW’s board of directors for new outdoor courts. The old asphalt courts had been built for tennis, not pickleball, and were showing their age. In Marangi’s considered opinion, they were “crappy” and needed to go.

The board eventually approved funding for the construction project, which cost $123,375. The work began in September 2017, and Marangi said the new courts were open for play on the Fourth of July. Brightly colored and gentle on the joints, they have the regulation pickleball surface, low fences separating the courts and lights allowing for evening play.

“Fantastic” courts

Stoner, the instructor, beams with pleasure when asked about the new courts. “They’re fantastic,” he said. “We’re just loving it, and more and more people are coming out to play.”

The affable Stoner had played pickleball before moving to LOW about three and a half years ago. He credits his own pickleball instructors, some of whom competed in national competitions, with teaching him the ins and outs of the game he loves—and loves to teach.

Once he became LOW’s lead pickleball instructor in October 2016, he began offering lessons every Thursday and helped launch the pickleball club. He also wrote articles and provided photos of players in action for “Lake Currents,” the LOW newsletter.

His efforts and good word-of-mouth publicity have succeeded in drawing people to the game, regardless of whether they previously played tennis, the sport pickleball most closely resembles.

Easy to learn and

appealing to newcomers

Stoner said pickleball is easy to learn. LOW offers friendly competition for beginners through advanced players.

“You can fit into whatever area you’re comfortable playing,” he said. “We don’t try to push anybody to try to go beyond what they feel like they can play.”

The new courts are not only a boon for LOW residents who love the game but also a draw for pickleball aficionados looking to move to the area.

Jim Bois, who moved to LOW on Memorial Day, can attest to that. Having come from the Poconos, he said, “One of the reasons I picked [Lake of the Woods] is because they have pickleball. It was pickleball, tennis and fishing—if they had those three, I was coming.”

Fellow pickleball player Carol Brown is especially happy that night play is an option.

“We’re proud of our new courts. We have the lights, and we play in the evenings,” she said, adding that she expects many people will layer up in sweats and continue playing outside during the winter.

Pickleball for all

Pickleball tends to attract an older crowd, but that is changing.

“Sixty percent of people who play pickleball are age 50 and older,” Stoner said of the sport in general, not just at LOW.

However, he is happy to report the game is catching on with young people, including competitive tennis players.

“They’re not giving up their tennis, but they absolutely love pickleball because it’s a much faster game for them. So you’re seeing a lot of twenty- and thirtysomethings coming into the game, and they’re changing the whole concept of the game.”

Stoner would like to see Orange County youngsters take up the sport and is open to working with administrators from the public schools to help make that happen.

Both he and Marangi are thrilled that adults with special needs are taking lessons and beginning to play on the new LOW courts.

Among the special-needs players at LOW is Sean McGinnis, 30, whose parents are active pickleball players.

“Pickleball has all the elements that people with special needs can benefit from—teamwork, cooperation, sports, physical activity,” his mother, Renee McInnis, said.

Sean, 30, lives in his own house at Lake of the Woods. He is one of a handful of special-needs players who have been coming to the pickleball courts for instruction and play.

In another outreach effort, LOW’s pickleball players are introducing the game to residents at the Alice C. Tyler Village of Childhelp, a treatment facility for abused children in Lignum.

A natural pain remedy

Many players at LOW commented on the social dimension of the game. Marangi believes pickleball players are more likely to compliment their opponents on a good shot than tennis players are.

Several players said pickleball has been good for their health.

Stoner said playing the sport regularly keeps his arthritic pain in check, and Marangi said it helps her deal with the lingering effects of Lyme disease.

“I play as much as I can, sometimes seven days a week, because if I don’t play, I’m in pain,” commented Renee McGinnis. “Because I have arthritis and osteoporosis, and it really helps with the pain.”

The natural pain relief is an important factor in her devotion to the game, but not the only one.

“I like competition and team play,” she explained, “and I’ve never played any racket sport, but this is pretty easy compared to what I always thought tennis or racquetball would be.”

And what makes it seem like a better fit for her than those other sports?

With a smile, McGinnis said, “Because you don’t have to tear around the court and be the Tasmanian devil and make hero shots.”

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