As folks from across the Ohio Valley hit gyms en masse in an effort to kickstart new healthy habits in the new year, there is one activity they may want to consider: pickleball, the fastest growing sport in America.

What is Pickleball?

If you’ve never heard of pickleball, it can be described as a hybrid of ping pong, tennis and badminton. It is played on a smaller, modified tennis-style court with its own set of rules. Players use oversized plastic paddles to hit a whiffle-like ball back and forth over a net with scoring somewhat similar to tennis. It is typically played as doubles, though some of the younger aficionados play the singles version. The odd moniker origin is still contested over 50 years after its invention on Bainbridge Island, Washington. It’s either named after the creator’s family dog or the ‘pickle boat’ from the world of competitive rowing (pickle boats were filled with all of the leftover rowers who had not yet participated for a final heat).

Regardless, according to an article in The Economist, over 4 million people have played Pickleball at least once in the last year. Participants range from children to octogenarians. Sites include repurposed outdoor tennis courts, prisons, former high school basketball courts, city streets, residential driveways, etc. There is a national organization (Pickleball USA) that sets the standards for play and equipment as well as a travel/vacation database so players can search for local courts/clubs while on the road. Some players even travel with a portable ‘court’ in their vehicle.

Pickleball Comes To Wheeling

By most accounts, Pat Carroll is the grandfather of Pickleball in the Wheeling area. He says he was introduced to the sport eleven years ago in Florida following his retirement from the pharmaceuticals industry. He and his wife, Jean, were looking for a warm-climate escape for the winter and found it in the form of an advertisement for The Villages, a retirement community described as ‘America’s Friendliest Hometown.’

“At the time, pickleball was already a popular activity and was being enjoyed by residents, all ages 55 and older,” said Carroll. “It was required that before you could play, you had to take two lessons. I signed up and immediately thought I wanted to play again in our hometown of Wheeling. I figured it would be successful due to our population of those over 50.”

Carroll threw himself into the endeavor. “I got as much information that I could on how to start a program from the experts there, including manufacturers of balls and paddles, court dimensions and even how to run a tournament.”

Upon his return to Wheeling, Carroll began the search for potential sites: Stratford Springs, Wheeling Country Club, Oglebay and Wheeling Parks. At the time, none of these worked out for various reasons so he expanded his reach.

“I then looked at city tennis courts that were in disrepair and no longer used. Of all the sites I looked at, I decided the three best possibilities would be Patterson, East Wheeling and North Park. I contacted Robert Herron [Wheeling’s current City Manager] and he invited me to make a presentation at the council meeting.”

Wheeling City Council and Carroll came to an agreement in which Carroll would bear all the cost of repairs and provide his own insurance policy. “I was given the green light to lease the upper court at Patterson.”

But his work was just beginning.

“I had to get bids from asphalt companies, contact companies that specialized in painting tennis and pickleball courts, find a company to dig the post holes to install the nets, buy a shed from Amish Country as well as the initial equipment like paddles, balls and nets. My wife and I even painted the entire fence surrounding the courts. By April 2011, we were ready to play.”

Once the courts were built, the next hurdle was getting the public interested in this new sport.

“No one knew what pickleball was,” says Carroll. “Fortunately, Dale Naegele stopped by and was interested in playing. To get new players we knocked on doors throughout the city’s businesses, handing out brochures inviting new players.”

It appears that their hard work has paid off. A decade later, there are over 30 regular members of the club ranging in age from their 20s to nearly 80 years old. They also get players from all over the country thanks to their affiliation with the USA Pickleball Association

Pickleball Explodes Across the Ohio Valley

Polly Loy is another local who was also introduced to pickleball in Florida and had a strong desire to bring the sport back to the Ohio Valley.

“I started playing and my husband initially said, ‘Ahhh…I’m not playing that game. It doesn’t look fun! But the next year we were down there, you have to have four people to play and we were one short so I made him go out and play and that was it. He was bit by the bug and he’s a huge pickleball fan now.”

“That second year we came back from Florida we were determined to play pickleball here locally. We knew about the private courts in Wheeling but we wanted to establish some type of public program,” said Loy. “The first summer we started with portable nets on the tennis courts at St. Clairsville’s Memorial Park.”

By the next year, Loy had rallied other community members and persuaded the City of St. Clairsville to give them an older tennis court that was not being used. “We raised money, did a lot of the labor ourselves and built a facility there that has four really nice pickleball courts.”

Another appealing facet of pickleball is that the courts are small enough that basketball courts and tennis courts can be used for indoor pickleball play with portable netting.

There are indoor courts across the Ohio Valley used for just this purpose at the St. Clairsville Recreation Center, the Highlands Sports Complex, and the basketball gym in the former Bishop Donahue Memorial High School in McMechen.

Ricky Moore, sports director for the Highlands Sports Complex, explains that their facility offers a range of daytime and evening pickleball options, including rentals and open pickleball hours.

“We average about 20-25 players per session and three to four weekly court rentals, with the greatest demand being for the ‘open’ sessions,” said Moore. “Our facility usage for pickleball will most likely be cyclical in connection with the seasons of the year. We will see high demand during late fall, winter and early spring. As players move to the outdoor courts during warmer months, we will see less traffic at the facility.”

You can also hear the distinct sounds of pickleball paddles on Mondays and Wednesdays nights at the former Bishop Donahue High School. You’re likely to find Diana Mey, Scott Hedrick, Nick Sparchane, Ambrose Bober, Sherri Polen and Lee Favede rotating through the various co-ed teams and courts. 

If Pat Carroll is the grandfather of local pickleball, then Scott Hedrick is the local pickleball ambassador, literally and figuratively. He’s specialized in bringing exposure to the sport and spurring its growth during the last seven years.

“I was at a friend’s birthday party around 2015. Another friend’s wife looked at me and asked if I played pickleball. I said, ‘I’ve heard of it.’ She said be at Patterson on Saturday, says Hedrick, a psychologist and former explosives blasting consultant. “It didn’t take long. The first time I played there was such a draw. The courts are small. The communication among your partner and the other players across the court from you…you can hear each other making comments and laughing and things like that. There was such camaraderie and it was so welcoming. pickleball is known for that.”

Hedrick began researching Pickleball utilizing the USA Pickleball Association’s website and social media.

“I inquired with them and learned that they also used people to be ambassadors and I applied. I’m actually a USA Pickleball Ambassador for our area.” He’s also proud of implementing the concept of ‘open nights’ whereby players can just show up and play, including new players who will be taught the rules of the game and how to play. 

Bill Marinelli is a pastor and former school bus driver from Bellaire, Ohio who’s been playing for about five years and loves to teach newbies.

“I’ve taught a lot of people the sport. Within 20 minutes I can have you up and playing,” said Marinelli. “It’s more hand-eye coordination than anything else. It has nothing to do with your physical makeup. Some of the people I’ve seen playing at the US [Pickleball] Open who were taking gold…you would look at them and say, ‘That guy doesn’t even look like an athlete.’ One guy weighed at least 300 pounds, but it didn’t matter.”

Marinelli and his crew play on a converted basketball court at the Bellaire Presbyterian Church, but Bellaire Pickleball may be expanding soon.

“I’m in the process right now of working with one of the community developers about the possibility of having some outdoor courts put in Bellaire,” said Marinelli. “I’ll know more about that this coming spring.”

Gregg Boury is also one of the early proponents of Wheeling-area Pickleball. He carries his paddle with him wherever he travels and has played in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia. 

“I read an article about pickleball being played in Elm Grove about a year after Pat Carroll opened his courts and from day one I was addicted,” says Boury, a former multiple-business owner in the Wheeling area. He’s gone on to organize clinics and has acted as an ambassador, introducing a lot of people to the game. In fact, one of his latest recruits is the new priest at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling. 

Boury’s advice on getting into the sport is simple and straightforward: “Read up a little bit about the rules, but don’t become overly concerned. Reach out to the local ambassadors and find out from them how to become involved. Do research online, like YouTube. Use social media to reach out to local representatives. But most importantly, don’t overthink it. It’s a simple sport to learn but the learning curve is very fast.”

If you’re ready to play some pickleball in the New Year, you can visit the official USA Pickleball Places 2 Play website to find more information on where you can play pickleball here and across the country. Here’s a quick glance at where you can play throughout the Ohio Valley:

• Rich Wooding has been a Correctional Officer with the State of Ohio/Belmont Correctional Institution for more than 25 years. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in Mass Communication and Journalism with a minor in Philosophy from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania in 1993. He is a U.S. Navy veteran, serving from 1985-89.

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