The power of pickleball: Courts are springing up around the region as its legions of devotees continue to grow

Hal Guillen and Evie Mikuszewski compete in the senior division of the 3-day pickleball tournament Friday at Buttery Brook Park in South Hadley.

Hal Guillen and Evie Mikuszewski compete in the senior division of the 3-day pickleball tournament Friday at Buttery Brook Park in South Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Hal Guillen, 88, competes in the senior division of a pickleball tournament on a fall afternoon at Buttery Brook Park in South Hadley. These courts, like many in Hampshire County, are used constantly as demand for the sport continues to rise.

Hal Guillen, 88, competes in the senior division of a pickleball tournament on a fall afternoon at Buttery Brook Park in South Hadley. These courts, like many in Hampshire County, are used constantly as demand for the sport continues to rise. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Annelis Goulet, from left, Joe Dragen, Hal Guillen and Roxanne Wood meet at the net after finishing their match in the senior division of the 3-day pickleball tournament Friday at Buttery Brook Park in South Hadley.

Annelis Goulet, from left, Joe Dragen, Hal Guillen and Roxanne Wood meet at the net after finishing their match in the senior division of the 3-day pickleball tournament Friday at Buttery Brook Park in South Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Tony Chapdelain, left, and Roxanne Wood compete in the senior division of the 3-day pickleball tournament Friday at Buttery Brook Park in South Hadley.

Tony Chapdelain, left, and Roxanne Wood compete in the senior division of the 3-day pickleball tournament Friday at Buttery Brook Park in South Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Tony Chapdelain competes in the senior division of the 3-day pickleball tournament Friday at Buttery Brook Park in South Hadley.

Tony Chapdelain competes in the senior division of the 3-day pickleball tournament Friday at Buttery Brook Park in South Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Carol Kuralt and Christine Dippolt compete against Hal Guillen and Evie Mikuszewski in the senior division of the 3-day pickleball tournament Friday at Buttery Brook Park in South Hadley.

Carol Kuralt and Christine Dippolt compete against Hal Guillen and Evie Mikuszewski in the senior division of the 3-day pickleball tournament Friday at Buttery Brook Park in South Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Carol Kuralt, right, and Christine Dippolt compete against Hal Guillen and Evie Mikuszewski in the senior division of a pickleball tournament at Buttery Brook Park in South Hadley.

Carol Kuralt, right, and Christine Dippolt compete against Hal Guillen and Evie Mikuszewski in the senior division of a pickleball tournament at Buttery Brook Park in South Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Brenda McDonald, from left, Shawn Obrien, Rick Robar and Roxanne Wood meet at the net after their senior division pickleball match at Buttery Brook Park.

Brenda McDonald, from left, Shawn Obrien, Rick Robar and Roxanne Wood meet at the net after their senior division pickleball match at Buttery Brook Park. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Bernie Puza competes in the senior division of the 3-day pickleball tournament Friday at Buttery Brook Park in South Hadley.

Bernie Puza competes in the senior division of the 3-day pickleball tournament Friday at Buttery Brook Park in South Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Hal Guillen, 88, right, and Chandler Stowell, 83, pose for a photo as two of the most senior competitors in the 3-day pickleball tournament Friday at Buttery Brook Park in South Hadley.

Hal Guillen, 88, right, and Chandler Stowell, 83, pose for a photo as two of the most senior competitors in the 3-day pickleball tournament Friday at Buttery Brook Park in South Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By MADDIE FABIAN

Staff Writer

Published: 01-11-2024 11:48 AM

On any given weekday morning, upward of 40 people fill the Holyoke Community College gymnasium to partake in the sport that has become a favorite pastime for those looking to socialize and for people of all ages and abilities looking for a little exercise: pickleball.

“Most people play, like they have to play, every day,” said one player, Kim Callico, who herself plays for a few hours once or twice a week.

At 9 a.m. on a weekday, when the HCC courts are open, pickleball players tend to fall in the retired 55-plus age range, but “if you play closer to 5 or 5:30 you’ll get a whole different crowd,” said Callico.

“I’ve been playing the last couple weekends with these high school kids,” she said. “It’s so good — they just bring energy. It’s definitely not just a sport for old people anymore.”

The pops and whacks of pickleball can be heard all around Hampshire County. With colder weather and snow arriving, players are flocking to indoor courts including HCC in Holyoke and Bay Road Tennis Club in Amherst.

During the summertime and when weather permits, avid players gather at outdoor courts at Buttery Brook Park in South Hadley, Nonotuck Park in Easthampton, and Conant Park in Southampton, while many travel a bit further to the popular Westfield pickleball courts, where player Chris Longo said “on any given Saturday in the summertime, you got 60 people there.”

“Anybody can play, whether you’re 100 years old, or you’re 15 … We’ve played with people that are 7 years old and are pretty good at it,” Longo said. “It’s a fun game, gets you off the couch.”

“It’s achieving a cult-like dimension,” said another pickleball player.

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Other pickleball courts — and some makeshift courts with lines drawn on tennis courts, basketball courts, or other hard surfaces — continue to pop up all over the region at schools, retirement communities, apartment complexes and even churches.

The demand is so high that many towns and cities are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to build their own municipal courts.

In Northampton, many players use the six pickleball courts at Look Park that are spread across three of the park’s existing three tennis courts. And in December, the City Council approved $350,000 in Community Preservation Act funding to build municipal pickleball courts at Ray Ellerbrook Field Park.

Another pickleball project is in the works for Kiwanis Park in Amherst, but is temporarily on hold after neighbors voiced concerns about noise and uncertainty around the project’s costs continue to grow.

South Hadley is home to popular courts at Buttery Brook Park — where four additional courts are in the works as part of a larger expansion of the park off Route 33 — and in the winter residents can play on Fridays and Saturdays at St. Theresa of Lisieux Parish.

In Easthampton, which has two pickleball courts at Nonotuck Park, residents formed the Easthampton Pickleball Fundraising Committee to raise $40,000 as “seed money” for the city to come up with the remaining cost of constructing two additional courts. The pickleball community hopes work on those courts will begin in the spring, according to committee member Barbara Cook.

This November, a sold-out fundraising tournament for the new courts was held at Easthampton High School, with 50 teams, 100 participants and lots of people watching from the bleachers.

“It’s just a wonderful thing, pickleball,” said Cook.

What’s the buzz?

Often described as a mix between tennis, ping pong and badminton, pickleball was first created in 1965. But it wasn’t until recently that the sport’s popularity really began to soar.

Belchertown resident Stephen Delude first discovered the sport in 2006 when he was staying at his mom’s house in Florida for a week.

“What struck me first about pickleball is you just get pulled into the group,” Delude said. “It was very welcoming and the people were fun.”

But when he returned to Massachusetts, pickleball was nowhere to be found.

“For years and years I knew about it but nobody played,” Delude said. “Now you go out in the summer when it’s nice out and you’ll find 20 or 30 people that you just play with … First it was all a bunch of old people — not anymore.”

Sometimes friends will go to the courts together, but more often than not, people are meeting up with strangers or pickleball acquaintances, often using an app called TeamReach to coordinate the time and place.

“You might not know them, but for that short period of time, you’re just enjoying yourselves,” Cook said. “At the pickleball courts, we don’t ask if you’re a Republican or Democrat, you just play pickleball.”

Steve Maurer, a former tennis player and coach, said he was “addicted immediately” to pickleball when he first played on vacation in Arizona.

“I used to play tennis a lot and it was very hard to get tennis matches, hard to get courts, hard to find players … Pickleball is a lot easier to just show up,” Maurer said, adding that he shows up almost every day for about two or three hours.

Part of the draw is physical activity, but the main draw is social connection, Maurer said. Just in the past year that he has been involved in the sport, Maurer has added 70 or 80 new contacts to his phone, denoted with an emoji representing pickleball.

“When you get older, you don’t have as many friends just because people move on or pass away,” he said, adding that through pickleball, “you develop this whole new community of friendship.”

There aren’t many sports that can bring together retired adults, children, wheelchair users, disabled people and athletes. That sense of community among people from all walks of life is what many pickleball lovers are most drawn to.

“There’s no delineation of talent or ability. You just play,” Callico said.

Despite the sport’s inclusive and community-oriented nature, Delude said he has noticed it growing more competitive recently.

“It seems so easy at first, but until you learn the strategy of how to play, then you get crushed by anybody that’s experienced,” he said.

As a pickleball newbie, he said, “you got to be careful… because if you’re playing with three experienced players, you kind of ruin the game.”

What ends up happening, said Maurer, is that “you kind of find your own level and fit in where you belong. … That makes it fun, so you don’t have a big disparity in ability.”

“People want to win,” he said.

‘Fad’ or here to stay?

HCC Athletics Director Tom Stewart called pickleball “a new fad.”

“Members-only jackets were the big thing back when I was a kid; they’re all gone. The iPod came out, and that was a huge thing; that’s a thing of the past,” Stewart said. “Some fads stick, like tennis. Some fads die a slow death … Time will tell.”

“I think [pickleball is] going to stay for quite some time,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a one-hit wonder, as they say.”

Kelly Canniff is a longtime tennis coach and more recently a pickleball instructor who has taught classes all around western Massachusetts. Cannif said her dream is to be a college coach.

“In the south, the colleges play and there’s a national championship,” Canniff said. “I’m meeting these college kids that are so interested, but they’re not having it in their college ... So I think we need to get that going.”

“It’s just got a lot of dimensions that people need for a healthy, happy life,” she said.

Maddie Fabian can be reached at mfabian@gazettenet.com.