- Associated Press - Sunday, July 16, 2017

SERGEANT BLUFF, Iowa (AP) - On weekday mornings, the Sergeant Bluff Community Center percolates with pickleball players.

The sport, a scaled-down cousin to tennis that trades in rackets for paddles and whiffleball-style balls, has increased in local popularity over the past three years, following a similar nationwide trend. Some say it’s the fastest-growing sport in the country.

Avid players in Siouxland say Sergeant Bluff’s indoor and outdoor availability have made it a hub of local pickleball action.

“We have a lot of Sioux City people and people from a lot of the rural areas like Sloan, Hornick and Smithland,” said Carol Clark, a Sergeant Bluff City Councilwoman who plays regularly at the community center. “One guy drives from Wayne, Nebraska.”

Many of the dozens who play on weekday mornings are retired and semi-retired residents. Clark said that’s because the group plays in the morning hours while people are at work, but she said the sport lends itself to aging tennis players and racquetball players.

“There’s a lot less running, and it’s good for all abilities,” she told the Sioux City Journal (https://bit.ly/2tAXgz6 ). “You don’t have to be a highly athletic person to play pickleball, but if you want to be highly competitive you can be.”

That’s part of what attracted 72-year-old Chuck Smoley to the game between three and four years ago. Smoley launched a small group of players when some of his friends came back from Arizona and told him about the game.

“I’m older, so running and playing tennis is kind of out of the question at this point,” he said.

They started small, going to local tennis courts and playing doubles matches when they had enough people.

“We struggled to get four people to play,” Smoley said of the group’s beginnings. “We’d chalk the court lines and we’d play (on the tennis courts) at either Riverside or East High School. We had to re-chalk when it rained.”

The group eventually found a home at the Sergeant Bluff Community Center, where the facility now has lines to accommodate three courts and movable nets. The two outdoor tennis courts have also been striped for the sport.

Smoley said interest in the sport started as a trickle but grew quickly. Now, he said, the group numbers more than 100 and has to split into two shifts to play. “Not everyone comes every day,” he said.

The basic rules of pickleball resemble a scaled-down version of tennis - and no, there are no briny cucumbers involved.

According to the United States Pickleball Association, single players or teams of two face off on a 20-by-44-foot court with a 36-inch-high net. Players must serve underhand from behind the baseline and must serve diagonally into the opposite side of their opponents’ court.

Their opponent must allow the served ball bounce once before returning. Then the server must also let the returned ball bounce once before hitting it back. After that point, teams can hit the ball back and forth with or without a bounce.

Only the serving player or team can score points, and each game is played to 11. The victor must win by 2.

Some of the more competitive Siouxland pickleballers have traveled to larger cities for weekend tournaments. Sergeant Bluff will hold its own pickleball tournament during Pioneer Valley Days in August.

City Parks and Recreation Director Brent Brown said from his experience, the spike in local pickleball activity has set Sergeant Bluff apart from other cities its size.

“We were at a parks and recreation conference this spring, and people were talking about pickleball and were blown away across the state at how we had that big of numbers,” Brown said. “Even the bigger cities didn’t have those kinds of numbers.”

This summer, a re-flooring project at the community center will expand the number of marked pickleball courts from three to five. The city also has a pair of outdoor tennis courts striped for the game.

In Sioux City, Parks and Recreation Matt Salvatore said the sport is an “up-and-comer,” one his department plans to accommodate more in the future. He said plans are in the works to add pickleball lines to the city’s tennis courts as they undergo refurbishment.

“As we refinish our (outdoor) tennis courts, we’ll eventually stripe them all,” he said.

He said the city is also striping the Long Lines Family Recreation Center’s court, which is currently undergoing resurfacing, for pickleball.

For those interested in giving the sport a whack, Clark said the Sergeant Bluff group is welcoming to newbies and open to anyone who wants to give pickleball a whirl.

“Everybody who’s been playing has extra paddles, and people can borrow,” she said. “You can try it out and see if it is for you.”


Information from: Sioux City Journal, https://www.siouxcityjournal.com

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