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East County Thursday, May 20, 2021 8 months ago

Community on the Court

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Lakewood Ranch Pickleball Club serves as a community for those interested in the sport.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

As groggy parents lug their camping chairs to various sidelines at Lakewood Ranch High School on a Saturday morning, they are met with a distinct sound.

Pop, pop, pop.

“What is that?” one parent questions. As they get nearer the fields, the sound becomes a little louder.

Pop, pop, pop.

“Oh, nice shot,” a voice rings out. “I don’t like it, but nice shot.”

Pop, pop, pop.

It’s been said that you can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old, a point well illustrated by the members of the Lakewood Ranch Pickleball Club who spend their Saturday mornings on the courts.

Several men sporting silver hair and name-brand hats battle on one court while couples of more than 20 years duke it out on another. Although they aren’t professionals, many members maintain the physical prowess to out-score players half their age.

In just three years, the Lakewood Ranch residents have managed to pull off the unthinkable: starting and maintaining a club devoted to pickleball in an area that as recent as five years ago didn’t have a single dedicated pickleball court. The organization has grown from about 40 unsure volunteers to a sprawling club that boasts more than 515 members.

How did it manage the seemingly insurmountable task? With a winning recipe: a dash of competitive play, a sprinkle of determination and a heaping serving of community-minded individuals.

 

‘What are you doing?’

In three years, Vice President Carol Lucas and President Bob Haskin turned Lakewood Ranch Pickleball Club’s 40 volunteers into more than 515 members.

When President Bob Haskin first moved to Lakewood Ranch from St. George, Utah, the first thing he did was search for pickleball courts.

Upon finding very few, Haskin decided to gauge public interest. So he and Vice President Carol Lucas put a booth together for a Lakewood Ranch Community Activities club night.

“We signed up 40 people, but we didn’t have a court to play on,” Haskin says with a laugh. “We didn’t know where to go. I had just moved here, and my wife’s going, ‘What are you doing?’”

Pickleball got its start on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, about 50 years ago and is now one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S. In 2020, the sport grew 21% nationally, and since 2013, USA Pickleball Association membership has grown from 4,000 to 40,000, a 1,000% increase.

Because it is so fast growing, there often aren’t many places to play. There are about 15,000 documented courts in the U.S., with about 110 new locations being built per month, according to the USAPA.

Luckily, the local interest opened up communication with various clubs and residential communities that had courts or were building them. Over the course of six months, club leaders were able to build a network of people from different Lakewood Ranch communities, such as Del Webb, Esplanade and Lakewood National Golf Club, who were looking to form teams and play.

Club leaders set to work pairing interested parties to form six teams in the first year. The next year, the club grew to include eight teams with more than 200 players. In its second year, the club hosted a tournament called the Sandhill Classic, which continued into the third year.

Now there are more than 515 members in the club. Lucas attributes the game’s success to the ease of play on the body and the minimal time commitment to learn the rules.

“There aren’t very many rules, and within an hour you can get people playing,” Lucas says. “Once they realize it’s easy to pick up this sport, people realize how fun it is.”

The club’s success, however, she attributes to the community players feel while on the court.

Building a community

Country Club East resident Don Croce began playing pickleball three years ago after searching for a sport that would be less intense on his body than tennis. He joined a team and, because of his tennis background, thought he would be a natural.

“I’m whacking the ball, and I’d get put in games with much better players because I have ‘the look,’ and I would swing really hard, and they would take all the power off the ball and tap it over,” Croce says. “I’d be playing guys I thought I could beat, and then I’d get killed. It was infuriating at first.”

But after sticking with it, his new club members helped him learn the tricks of the game. The community that was so willing to share its secrets is what kept him coming back.

Club member Harris Williams agrees. He says he’s never met a friendlier group of people.

“I’m pretty extroverted, but I’ve made more friends in the last year playing pickleball than I have in the last 35 years in Sarasota combined,” Williams says.

On Saturday mornings, varying levels of play are often spread among the courts. Beginners start on one end and work through levels of difficulty down the line. However, Haskin says anybody can play with anyone they choose.

Don Croce and Susie Cherry say they joined the club to be a part of the community it offers.

“You can have 90-year-olds playing with 9-year-olds and guys and gals playing together. You can have all different abilities on the court because you can have a nice, fun exchange, which is nice because you can’t do that with too many other sports,” he says.

A player often found mixing it up with varying levels of play is Susie Cherry. She and her husband used to play tennis every day, but after two knee replacements, they had to search for a new game. After making the switch three years ago, the couple now plays with club members four or five times a week.

“The people are a lot of fun,” Cherry says. “It’s so social, and you get fresh air and exercise while you’re making friends. What’s not to love?”

The club does not have a reservation system for courts, so new members can come and mingle with other players. Haskin says it takes the pressure off single people who are interested in playing.

 

The future of Manatee County pickleball

Because the pickleball courts are run by Manatee County Parks and Recreation, the club has to abide by its rules.

The county turned an old basketball court into five pickleball courts last year, but Haskin says the condition of the courts is already starting to break down.

The club funded the addition of fencing, windscreens and paddle holders at the courts. A member also donated court rollers and squeegees to dry off water from the court.

Future planning laid out by the Lakewood Ranch Park Master Plan includes the remodeling of handball and tennis courts into several more pickleball courts, but the timeline has yet to be decided.

In the past year, club leaders have petitioned to have pickleball courts added to the Premier Sports Campus. A proposal for the campus expansion includes 24 new pickleball courts, some of which will be covered and have seating. Should those be added, Haskin says the club would have the capacity to host regional tournaments.

“It would be such a revenue generator,” Haskin says. “Once you put it in, there’s very little maintenance and multiple revenue-generating streams.”

No matter where the courts are added, Lucas says it needs to happen sooner rather than later to keep the sport thriving in Manatee County.

“When we have big teams across communities, there tends to be a wall that builds up between them, and they’re all isolated,” she says. “But when we have a common space to come and play, you’re bringing people in from different places and building a true community.”

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