Pickleball fever takes hold in Hampshire County 

  • Lynne Saner and Stephen Gilson of Northampton play a game of singles pickleball on the community courts at Easthampton's Nonotuck Park on Monday, June 13, 2022. Saner noted that a game of singles requires a lot more running around on the court than the more commonly played doubles, with four players. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Stephen Gilson and Lynne Saner of Northampton play a game of singles pickleball on the community courts at Easthampton’s Nonotuck Park on Monday, June 13, 2022. Saner noted that a game of singles requires a lot more running around on the court than the more commonly played doubles, with four players. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Stephen Gilson and Lynne Saner of Northampton play a game of singles pickleball on the community courts at Easthampton's Nonotuck Park on Monday, June 13, 2022. Saner noted that a game of singles requires a lot more running around on the court than the more commonly played doubles, with four players. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 6/20/2022 5:08:23 PM
Modified: 6/20/2022 5:08:02 PM

Pickleball fanaticism is reaching a fever pitch in the Pioneer Valley.

The country’s fastest growing sport has already found a home at Easthampton’s Nonotuck Park, where two pickleball courts have hosted more than 60 players since their inaugural match in April.

In South Hadley, construction is underway on a project that’s twice as big. A neglected asphalt skate park at Buttery Brook Park is slated for a serious face-lift thanks to community members who raised nearly $100,000 to install four state-of-the-art pickleball courts over the dilapidated outdoor rink.

And in Southampton, the advocacy of a motivated handful of pickleball-enamored residents has finally paid off.

Last Thursday, representatives from the town’s Parks and Recreation department and Community Preservation Act committee convened at Conant Park for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The town unveiled two new pickleball courts following a protracted push by the Council on Aging to site the new athletic facility in an attempt to divert Southampton’s burgeoning crowd of pickleballers from overrunning its two public tennis courts.

Council chair Janet Cain recalls facing off in doubles against a 15-year-old rookie and an 80-year-old retired tennis player on the same court earlier this year, modeling an “intergenerational camaraderie” she calls “the heart and soul of pickleball.”

“We started a beginner’s pickleball class and there I’ve met a lot of people I didn’t know before. It’s become a very fun, social, intergenerational event,” Cain said.

The sport is good for agility and balance, she noted.

“The matches are never cutthroat — people aren’t out for blood,” she said with a facetious lilt, her incredulous laughter conveying what most players know to be pickleball’s most infectious quality — its accessibility.

Pickleball functions as an amalgamation of badminton, tennis, and table tennis. Played on a court measuring 20 by 44 feet, it is often viewed as a low-impact modification of tennis, trading rackets for paddles, swapping tennis balls for a perforated baseball similar to a whiffle ball, and lowering the standard 42-inch tennis net to a height of 36 inches.

Unlike other costly or high-risk activities, pickleball remains as low-stakes a sport as they come, and it especially appeals to older athletes looking to spare their knees and shoulders the injuries associated with harsher high-impact sports.

Former Easthampton city councilor Joe McCoy, a longtime tennis player, said he hasn’t picked up a racket since picking up pickleball, a sport he initially dismissed as “something that sounded really stupid.”

“It’s extremely aerobic and can be played at a variety of levels,” McCoy said. “You’ll see athletes trotting back and forth, busting it on the court. It’s fast paced — there are quick underhand serves. Some people like to call it old person’s tennis, but there’s a lot of excitement with pickleball,”

He points to tennis hall-of-famer Gigi Fernandez as an example of pickleball’s broad appeal. The winner of 17 Grand Slam titles has experienced a competitive second wind in her career, playing in the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships in Florida last year.

McCoy calls himself a convert, and, vowing that “pickleball is the next big thing,” South Hadley Recreation Director Andrew Rogers agrees.

“Western Massachusetts has certainly bought in to pickleball, and we can see why. Pickleball brings a sense of community to your community,” said Rogers, adding that “[the parks department is] very happy to give this amenity to people. It has truly been a community effort funding this project.”

After a failed attempt to fund new pickleball courts through the municipal budget, which prioritizes town infrastructure, Rogers joined forces with volunteer Kim Prough to crowdfund from local businesses and other donors.

Donations from Friends of Buttery Brook and People’s Bank multiplied as fundraising efforts intensified, and, in early June after nine months of planning, construction began.

“This has been a very fun process, and we’re sure this will bring much more vibrancy to the park,” Rogers said. “We’re looking to purchase a leaf blower, extra paddles, extra balls — new pickleball courts will be a way to enhance Buttery Brook for everyone.”


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