Pickleball gains popularity in Polson

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CHARLO VIKINGS’ Allie Delaney jumps the 300 hurdles Friday afternoon at Big-6 Invitational at Frenchtown High School. Delaney captured first in the 300 meter hurdles with a time of 49.38 seconds. (Jason Blasco/Lake County Leader)

Big Arm resident Bob Bauerle needed to find a sport to replace the sport he loved to play: tennis.

Bauerle admitted he was tired of the attrition of the sport of tennis and could feel the wear and tear the sport took on his joints as he started to age.

Bauerle also admitted he needed to find a way to stay active that was less strenuous.

“What happens with tennis is that age starts catching up with you,” Bauerle said. “I am now 62 years old and when you have played tennis from the time you are in high school, it starts getting rough on the joints and starts getting rough on you.”

Bauerle said he wanted a game where he would be able to be “social.”

His passion for Pickleball quickly grew.

Bauerle constructed a private Pickleball Court in his house. He eventually became a United States Pickleball Association Ambassador and has spread the word on what has become one of the fastest growing sports in the United States.

“If you just want to be social and play Pickleball, you can push the ball around and laugh and have a good time,” Bauerle said. “The games only take about ten to 15 minutes to complete. There will be folks just sitting around waiting to play, shooting the bull and in about five minutes, they are laughing and having a good time. The difference between Pickleball and tennis is that in tennis, you have to get together with three friends and play two sets of tennis and go home. With Pickleball, you can have 20 people hanging out and they get on the court, and they are in and on.”

One main reason for Pickleball’s explosion in popularity in the United States is because it is easy to play.

“People who have never played tennis begin to start having fun immediately,” Bauerle said. “When people first start playing tennis, they can easily get frustrated because tennis is such a hard sport to master. I’ve become really competitive in the last three years and moving up in levels in Pickleball that I never achieved in tennis. In Pickleball, I see myself getting to the next level.”

Essentially, the Pickleball court is a condensed version of tennis and similar to a badminton court. The size of the court is 20X44 feet for both doubles and singles games. The net is 36 inches on the ends, and 34 inches at the center. It is similar to a tennis court but unlike tennis, has no alleys. The outer courts, but not the inner courts, are divided in half by service lines. The inner courts are non-volley zones and extend 7 feet from the net on either side, according to Wikipedia.

As an avid tennis player, Bauerle wanted something he could improve on, and he said he felt he “peaked” in tennis.

“I am nowhere near the ability level(in Pickleball) I would like to be,” Bauerle said. “I would like to move up a level or two if I could. They rated Pickleball players from 2.0, 2.5, all the way up to a level of five. Right now, I am a strong 4.0 and I could see myself maybe getting to a 5.0 if I can work at it.”

A seasonal Mission Valley resident, Bauerle plays the sport in Arizona and St. George, Utah. In St. George, Utah, there are public courts that outnumber tennis courts with a 3-to-1 ratio, Bauerle said.

“In Arizona, there are 20 people playing in a club and in this retirement community in Utah, there are 850 members,” Bauerle talked of the growth of the sport. “Pickleball is kind of taking on with the older subset of active adults.”

Pickleball, a hybrid between ping pong and tennis, is also more action-packed, Bauerle said.

“The rallies last a lot longer and that is where people have fun because their rallies are longer,” Bauerle said. “It just doesn’t happen in tennis like it does in Pickleball. The ball will go back and forth like ten or 15 times. You just don’t need as much skill to hit the ball back. In playing, there is a lot less effort than it takes to hit a tennis ball.”

Bauerle, a seasoned Pickleball player, will drive to tournaments all over the country looking for competition.

“We are just driving down through Idaho and Brigham and the USPA has 17 Pickleball Courts,” Bauerle said. “They are going to hold a large tournament on Memorial Day Weekend. You have to pay to enter in these tournaments and you can even win prize money. A lot of the players are crossovers from tennis that tried to become professional players and are now tennis pros or teaching pros.”

There is a multiple number of ages that play Pickleball competitively, Bauerle said.

“There are some guys that are 50 and over and even one guy that was 67 years old,” Bauerle said. “He won this singles match during the course, dove on the wood floor twice to get balls, got up and dove again. I don’t want to be like that guy.”

Bauerle has even run into some accomplished Pickleball players that converted successfully from being professional badminton players: Jack and wife Christy Huczeck, a professional racquetball player.

“They were 33 or 34 years old and in their early 20s, they did a lot of travelling around the world playing racquetball,” Bauerle said. “I was never able to beat them and I’ll probably never be able to beat them. They are the jack-of-all-trades in Pickleball.”

Though Bauerle would like to get on the levels of two of the best Pickleball players he has ever seen, he also says he enjoys it on a “social level.”

“Most of the play is done at the social level and the USPA does very specific tournaments,” Bauerle said. “How many people out of 100 will get to my level as a 4.0 player is a very small percentage. Maybe about half of the players will get to a 2.5 or less. Anyone with any type of athletic ability will be a 2.5 level within two hours and happily play Pickleball at that level. Very few people that play Pickleball don’t ever come back again.”

Polson responds to Pickleball demand

The City of Polson has responded to the growing demand for public Pickleball Courts for two reasons.

The surge in Pickleball’s popularity, and for the next two years Polson will host the Montana Senior Olympics and Pickleball is one of its sanctioned sports.

“The courts have been approved but not approved yet until we’ve done the budgeting,” Director of Parks and Recreation Pat Nowlen said. “We are currently in the process of getting volunteer labor to do the work and we are trying to raise $1,000 per court plus do some other minor maintenance for the courts. We need one thousand dollars per court plus some other minor stuff for the asphalt. When the council approves it for next year’s budget, we will go fully with it unless we get donations.”

Nowlen said there are several seasonal players that are gravitating towards Missoula to play the sport in organized leagues.

“There is a huge demand for it and people are going down to Missoula to play Pickleball from Polson,” Nowlen said. “This is the largest growing sport in the nation and we will be hosting the Senior Olympics for the next two years.”

Polson is receiving help from the current Pirates’ tennis coach who was just recently inducted into the Montana Coaches Association Hall Of Fame, Bob Hislop, to help them with the surfacing of the courts.

“The Pickleball courts use the exact same material,” Hislop said. “It is a little different layout because it’s so small.”

Hislop, who says he isn’t a Pickleball player himself, said he is excited to aid in the expansion of recreational sport.

“It will be fun and neat,” Hislop said.

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