Friday, March 5, 2021

Courting Players of All Ages: Pickleball is finding a home in State College

Just about every day of the week, you can hear the hollow pop, pop, pop of a pickleball being struck by paddles in the gymnasium at the State College YMCA. In warmer weather, the same sounds can be heard from a growing number of courts at local parks.

Look out on the courts and you will find older adults enjoying a social way to stay active, and young people picking up a lifelong sport that will help keep them physically fit.

You will see players sharing secrets of the game and making friendships that come from playing one of the fastest-growing sports in the country.

You will see a dedicated group of players who travel to competitions, help to grow the sport in the region, and are having a lot of fun along the way.

During this time of social distancing, the sport allows for players to stay apart and safe, while being active and enjoying each other’s company.

With five new dedicated courts under construction at the YMCA, it appears pickleball is here to stay. And players are always looking for new friends to join them at the net.

Instantly hooked

Bo Barbrow, who is sometimes referred to as the “Pickleball Czar” at the State College YMCA, got interested in the sport six years ago when he saw people playing the game with a funny sounding name in New Jersey. He thought it looked like fun, so he asked the Y if he could set up a league in State College. He was delighted to hear that there already was a group of four people who were playing at the Y every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

“The real father of pickleball in State College is Paul Knepp. He retired from the sport, but he supplied all of the original equipment, including three net systems,” says Barbrow.

Once he got on the court and hit the ball with the paddle, Barbrow quickly got hooked.

“Pickleball is a sport that is addictive. It is played on a badminton-size court, is a low-impact sport, and one that combines a social piece along with the competitive piece,” says Barbrow.

Drew Von Tish started playing pickleball before Barbrow, when some friends in his Liberty Hill neighborhood asked him to join them for a game at a local park.

“I said, ‘Sure, what’s pickleball?’” says Von Tish.

Like Barbrow, he quickly caught the pickleball bug. “I was hooked right from the get-go, and I have been playing ever since.”

Drew Von Tish (left), Bo Barbrow, and Maribel Lies are among the sport’s local ambassadors.

When Knepp retired from the sport, he asked Barbrow to take over managing the group of local players. Especially before the pandemic, the State College group grew into a close-knit community of players. That original group of four to five people playing at the YMCA has grown to more than 80 active players, with new participants getting involved all the time.

“Our relationship with the Y is great and they have been unbelievably supportive. From the perspective of the YMCA, it is great for them to see 20 or 30 people in a gymnasium playing pickleball for two hours,” says Barbrow.

Just months after he started playing, Barbrow attended the first-ever U.S Open for pickleball in Naples, Florida, which he says he “had no right to be competing in.” Despite his inexperience, he says the event “was a wonderful experience and encouraged others to give it a shot. This year, we will have at least eight players competing if COVID cooperates.”

Even before the construction of the new outdoor court at the YMCA, State College had become a pickleball hub. With three courts in the gym and four outdoor courts on the inline skating rink at the Y, along with outdoor courts at Dalevue, Bernel Road, Suburban, and Green Hollow parks, the area is on the pickleball map. People passing through town often reach out to see if there are players who might be up for a game.

“We have people who travel here from all over the USA to play here. We are listed on a national clearinghouse, and people traveling to our area often call and we set them up with play times while they are visiting,” says Barbrow. “We also get visitors from surrounding areas who don’t have pickleball in their area.”

COVID restrictions have put a damper on some of the fun, especially indoors at the YMCA. Players are mindful of social distancing and the number of players is limited for each session. But the pickleball program at the Y is still going strong and staying safe (including the use of masks), as players look forward to brighter days with the new outdoor courts.

“I believe the sense of community that’s been developed here with the pickleball group has really been a blessing for the YMCA and its members,” says Josh Cone, senior director of health & wellness. “We are really looking forward to getting back to seeing dozens of smiling and laughing faces in the coming months.”

‘You can play for hours’

Often described as a mashup of tennis, badminton, and ping-pong, one of the reasons the sport is so popular is that it’s easy to play, Von Tish says.

“You don’t have to be a super athlete to pick this up quickly,” he says.

Played with a plastic ball with holes, typically in a doubles format on a badminton-size court, the game requires less coverage than tennis.

“Your movement – although you are going back, you are coming up – you can play for hours because it is kind of a low-impact sport,” says Barbrow. “It is a much easier sports for all ages.”

A key aspect to the sport is a 7-foot non-volley zone in front of the net. Players are not allowed into this space unless the ball is in the zone.

“This keeps the slamming that you see in tennis, it kinds of lessens it,” says Barbrow.

“It’s a sport that you can learn the basics [of] in an hour. I’m not saying that you’ll be a superstar right away, but it can be picked up pretty easily,” says Cone. “I taught my in-laws on vacation a few years ago in Florida after they saw a bunch of people playing at the converted tennis courts below our apartment. They saw it was a way to meet others in the community, and my father in-law was playing cards a couple evenings later with people he had met playing. I just turned 38 and I’m constantly getting beat pretty handily by others who have 15, 20, or 30 years or more on me. It’s very humbling.”

Through the YMCA and Centre Region Parks and Recreation, the group runs workshops and clinics that help new players learn the ropes and experienced players improve their technique.

A retired teacher, Barbrow also is glad to see a push toward teaching the game to younger players.

“I am really happy that we are now emphasizing the youth movement,” he says. “As a retired teacher, one of my favorite activities is to run clinics for young players from middle school to high school. Our national governing body is also encouraging the youth movement.”

‘Forced to be with other people’

Another key to the sport’s popularity is its social aspect. Unless a team is preparing for a tournament, players rotate, changing partners between matches.

“You are kind of forced to be with other people,” says Barbrow.

Especially during non-COVID times when there are larger groups playing, Barbrow says there is time in-between games where people are able to socialize on the sidelines.

“It is about the most social game I have ever come across, maybe more than golf. … There is social interaction that instantly bonds you to the people you play with,” says Von Tish.

“All of us have benefited from those who came before us to teach us how to play,” he adds.

The YMCA has equipment for people to use, allowing players to try the sport at practically no cost.

“For me, the friendships made over the years is as important as the game. We now have people who have become friends and have dinners together, groups who travel together to tournaments, and families who have become friends through this sport,” says Barbrow.

Courting a dream

While players are grateful for the courts in the gym and the inline rink at the YMCA, sometimes all those extra lines on the floor can be a little confusing, and those surfaces aren’t ideal for pickleball. Couple that with the growing number of players interested in the sport, and group members started thinking about how they could build dedicated pickleball courts in State College.

“We were growing here exponentially. Every week there would be new players coming out. Three times a year we would be running clinics, and they would be full,” says Von Tish. “We were going to need a bigger, better home. It was just practical.”

They first worked with Patton Township to establish four dedicated pickleball courts at Green Hollow Park.

“But we could see that still wasn’t going to be enough, because we were filling Green Hollow Park, with sometimes people waiting to play,” says Von Tish.

Building new courts at the Y was a natural fit.

“It is good for the sport of pickleball, it is good for the YMCA, and little by little things have been flowing into place,” says Von Tish.

With construction underway for the new outdoor courts, the anticipation among pickleballers is growing.

“The new, under-construction outdoor courts are causing a great deal of excitement,” says Barbrow. “They will be state-of-the-art courts dedicated to pickleball only, with no extra lines for basketball, inline skating, etc. The courts came about through the tireless efforts of Drew Von Tish and (YMCA of Centre County CEO) Scott Mitchell and Josh Cone. Our relationship with the Y is great and they have been unbelievably supportive.

“To see the older population being active and using the YMCA, because we have so much interest and so many people … this hit exactly what they are trying to do,” Barbrow adds.

Von Tish “was relentless” in raising funds for the new courts, Barbrow says. With donations from around the community and a few small grants, the dream became reality, and the YMCA was happy to be a part of it.

“We simply provided the space and the pickleballers provided the finances, along with some grants we were able to receive for the new pickleball court project,” Cone says. “We see the potential growth of the sport over the coming years along with the population that the State College YMCA serves and feel it is a good fit. We aim to grow the bonds of the community and do whatever we can to keep people of all ages and backgrounds moving and healthy.”

With a soft surface that is forgiving on the joints and fencing to keep errant balls from interrupting other games, the new courts are being made with pickleball in mind, much like the courts at Green Hollow Park. With a total of 12 available courts, the YMCA could host tournaments in the future, and provide more teaching opportunities.

Construction started late last year, with a goal of being complete by late spring this year. But the group is making one last fundraising push after running into some new costs.

“As with any construction projects, there have been some frustrations. The borough made some changes to our plans and those changes put us about $20,000 behind,” Barbrow says. “Our big push this spring will be corporate sponsorship. We would like to encourage businesses to buy advertising at the new court complex, and we also would like to offer businesses the opportunity to buy naming rights to the complex.”

Once completed, the new courts will allow more people, both young and old, to understand the magic of the sport.

“We’ve been able to hold some youth clinics and look to host more this summer and into the future,” Cone says. “From what I understand, some schools are now including pickleball in their PE classes. I’ve gradually started to see more of the younger generation involved over the last few years. With the outside courts, we won’t be competing for gym space with other YMCA programming during after-school hours. This will allow us to hold more clinics to teach the younger generation.

“It’s a great way to have interaction with the younger and older generations. Our older generations have a lot of wisdom to share, whether it’s about pickleball or life.”

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To learn more, visit ymcaofcentrecounty.org, or crpr.org/pickleball.

Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.