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Locals among those caught in pickleball craze

Your interest might first be piqued by the game’s unique name.

But once you grab a paddle and find a net and some friends to play with, you too may get hooked by pickleball.

“Exploding in popularity,” according to the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), pickleball is a game that was first created in 1965 by three Washington- state fathers who tried to come up with something new for their bored families to do in the summer. It is now commonly played throughout the United States and governing bodies have recently been created in Canada and India.

A Medford-based group plays for about two hours, two mornings a week in the summer on the north courts of Medford Area Senior High’s tennis courts, where lines for their game have been added. Generally, it’s a group of about eight to sometimes a dozen players, mostly women, that’s played fairly religiously for at least two years now. Some were once part of a popular tennis league in town.

“It’s great exercise,” Laura Zuleger said.

The game’s popularity nationwide has no doubt been spurred by players in older age brackets with community centers and retirement communities being credited for its growing interest. But it’s also becoming more common in school physical education classes, as recently retired Holy Rosary teacher and member of the group Sue Conn noted, and it takes quick thinking and quick movements to win, not that winning is always what’s all about.

“I play for the camaraderie,” Bev Adams said.

“It’s just fun to play with friends,” Marsha Klingbeil said.

So what is pickleball you may ask?

The USAPA describes the games as a combination of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. It’s played with a padded and a plastic ball with holes on a badminton-sized court and a slightlymodifi ed tennis net. It can be played in singles or doubles formats.

“Singles is definitely a tougher game,” Zuleger said. She said she was first introduced to pickleball several years ago at a workshop during a large motorhome rally.

Much like the games it steals elements from, pickleball is a serve, attack and defend game where you try to outlast your opponent on each point while hitting the ball over the net and keeping it in bounds.

But there are unique rules.

Like tennis, the serve must go diagonally crosscourt, but there are no double faults. Serves must be made underhand and must bounce. The return shot must also bounce before players may volley (hit the ball before it bounces) or hit ground strokes (play it after it bounces).

In doubles play, only one player serves for each team on the first rotation, but after that both players serve before the serve goes back to the opposing side.

There is a no-volley zone called the “kitchen,” which covers the 7 feet closest to the net on each side of the court. Any play made on the ball there has to come off a bounce.

Points are only scored by serving teams, like volleyball used to before rally scoring. Games are normally played to 11, win by two, though some tournament games may go to 15 or 21, win by two. Balls that hit boundary lines are considered to be in bounds.

An official pickleball court is 44 feet long and 20 feet wide, divided by a 36inch high net. The tennis nets at Medford Area Senior High are slightly higher than that, otherwise the two courts are marked to typical pickleball dimensions. The two service areas on each side of the court are 15 by 10 feet.

Members of the Medford group said a small investment is all that is needed to get you started in pickleball and, of course, you can work your way up if the game gets its hooks in you. Balls only cost a few bucks, and there are indoor and outdoor varieties of those. Low-end wooden paddles can be found for $10-$20. Quality graphite and composite paddles for those who are serious about the game get to $100 to $150 and some high-end models even approach $200. If you don’t have a place to play, a basic portable net may cost $100-$150.

Conn recommended court shoes, rather than basic running-style tennis shoes. In case you were wondering, pickles have nothing to do with the game. According to the USAPA website, there is some debate as to where the strange name came from. The three dads who invented the game were Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum. The website states one story is that Pritchard’s wife, Joan, started calling the game pickleball because “the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.”

The other story is that McCallum named it after the Pritchards’ dog, who would chase the ball and run off with it. The dog’s name was Pickles.

If you are interested in learning more about the game or getting some lessons, Zuleger and Sally Lemke would be the members of Medford group to contact. More background can be found at usapa. org and videos on the sport abound online.

Left to right, Laura Zuleger, Cathy Miller-Temme, Marsha Klingbeil and Sue Conn are engaged in a rally during a doubles game of pickleball Friday morning.

Laura Zuleger plays a ball off a high hop during some friendly doubles competition.PHOTOS BY MATT FREY/THE STAR NEWS