Pickleball becomes competitive in Vicksburg

Published 9:00 pm Saturday, July 21, 2018

A moment of calm falls over the court as the score is called out. The server flexes his knees and hits the plastic ball, and soon it’s flying back and forth at high speed. The exchange is brief, just five or 10 seconds, and is followed by smiles as the players reset for the next point.

The sport with the blistering pace is pickleball, an apparent mishmash of nearly a several other games — tennis, badminton, ping pong, even wiffleball. It was started in the mid-1960s and has found a foothold in Vicksburg, with a growing community and several members branching off into Mississippi’s competitive circuit.

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“We’ve got about 35 people who play regularly, five venues and about 15 courts,” Vicksburg resident Cathy Head, a local ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association, said in between games at the Purks YMCA. “We’ve introduced it to well over 150 individuals collectively. We have a solid group of retirees that play no less than five times per week.”

Despite its funny name, pickleball is a sport that features quick bursts of intense action. It’s played on a court that’s 20 feet wide and 44 feet long, although that can be adjusted depending on the venue.

The game itself is played like tennis, but with a plastic ball about the size of a baseball and with paddles that look like oversized ping pong paddles. The server hits the ball over the net, where it must bounce once before it can be returned. The return shot must also bounce once.

After that, it’s a lightning-fast free-for-all. Shots fly back and forth as the plastic ball curves and dips. Most points are over in a matter of seconds, even with nearly a dozen return shots hit between players.

Games are typically played to 11, 15 or 21 and must be won by two points. Games can also be played between individual players or doubles teams.

“The intensity is a lot higher than what I expected,” said Greg Head, Cathy’s husband. “I’ve been playing sports all my life, and I was shell shocked by the speed and intensity of it.”

The intensity of the game is part of its appeal, though. The confined spaces make it easier to find places to play — the Heads’ group on this day was playing on one side of a basketball court at the Purks YMCA — and also make it easier on the body than the wider courts used in tennis. The fast pace also provides a good aerobic workout.

“I’ve lost 65 pounds playing pickleball,” said Flora resident John Crosby, who works for Entergy and joined the game at the YMCA after work. “I have fewer migraine headaches. It’s a fountain of youth.”

Another member of the game, Brenda Koestler, agreed.

“I had two knee replacements and came back to play pickleball,” Koestler said.

Cathy and Greg Head were patient zero of Vicksburg’s pickleball community. Greg Head, a soccer coach and physical education teacher at Warren Central High School, was introduced to the game in college and often had his students play it in their PE classes.

The couple became regular pickleball players after visiting their daughter in Missouri and playing it there. Not long after, they became not just fans and participants of the sport, but disciples as well. They introduced it to several friends around Vicksburg and a devoted community started to form.

Some players have joined up through word of mouth, and others through an app that shows where to find regular games and points of contact.

“I ran into Brenda and we used to play tennis together. She said we should play pickleball. I played once and was hooked,” Vicksburg resident Teres Saunier said. “The health benefit and competition are great. I love the competition. It’s real exciting to be my age and winning medals. I feel better at 54 than I did at 34, because I wasn’t doing anything then. And it’s all because of pickleball.”

The medals have come in bunches for several Vicksburg players as they’ve gotten more confident with their skills. Saunier won a gold medal in her age group at the State Games of Mississippi in June. Cathy Head won two, and Greg Head won a gold and a silver. Several other local players won other medals as well in that tournament and others this summer.

“Most of these games we score and call our own points and lines,” Cathy Head said, pointing toward the portable net and makeshift court at the Y. “At tournaments it’s a little more structured.”

The competitive tournaments have allowed some of the better players to take their game to the next level. The heart of the local pickleball scene, however, remains the social aspect and the ability to play it well into middle and old age.

“It’s exciting to know there is no end in sight,” Saunier said. “I can play until I’m 75 or 95.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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