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  • Writer's pictureMason Edwards!

Dayton's Pickleheads: Locals See Surge of Interest in New Sport

By Mason Edwards, Contributing Reporter for The Herald-News

Yvonne Rose, left, and Gigi Ford, right, play on Dayton’s pickleball courts. (Photo by Mason Edwards)


Most people snooze or turn off their work alarm on Saturday, but Dayton’s Pickleheads — fans of a new tennis-like sport — wake up early. They wouldn’t dare miss the ladder leagues.


From 9 a.m. to noon, up to 30 players face off against each other in exciting, enjoyable games of pickleball. According to one tournament organizer, Jerri Morgan, competitors travel to Dayton from Athens, Cleveland, Chattanooga, Dunlap and more to participate. Moreover, Dayton’s 12 courts — with six courts for each of the two locations — outshine the crowded courts found elsewhere in the region.


The league organizers divide the court by skill, and depending on a player’s score, they either advance to a higher-level court or lose their position to someone else. Volunteers keep track of the scores, so that when they meet to play again, they can pick up where they left off.


“I have played many sports through my life, but the community of pickleball is unique to itself,” Morgan said. “I have seen kids playing that I would say are 5 or 6. I have also played against people that are in their 80s, and they are fierce competitors.”


Dayton’s two court locations, at the intersections of Walnut Street and First Avenue as well as Church Street and Alabama Avenue, are rarely empty. On Tuesdays, Health Science Professor Yvonne Rose and certified Pickleball instructor D. McDonough hold a one-hour credit Pickleball course for 16 Bryan College students, which is the school’s maximum class size.


“Pickleball is big ping pong, not little tennis,” Rose said. “We started playing here in the community, and its such a growing sport; we knew we had to get it in part of our curriculum.”


As distinctive as the name is, pickleball is a mixture of familiar sports that is played with large paddles and a plastic wiffleball. Two or four people can participate, and players score points when they serve and the opposing team doesn’t properly return it — provided they avoid the “kitchen,” the closest area to the net where balls cannot be served into.


Glenn Gerry serves as the admin for Dayton’s pickleball Facebook group, which connects over 300 players in the area. After moving to Dayton in 2019, Gerry said that he, Wayne Remter and Bill Fullerton helped persuade the city of Dayton to build its pickleball courts.


“[Pickleball] rules are numerous like any sport...the main rule is [to] have fun,” Gerry wrote, before commenting on its popularity in Dayton. “We had a strong surge in the past six months.”


The sport’s popularity comes from its simplicity, low cost of entry, friendly player community and wide appeal to most ages. Newcomers can purchase decent paddles for around $70, but low-end and high-end models exist as well, according to Gerry.


“The magic of pickleball is [that] it’s easy to learn, but hard to master. Beginners can go out their first time, learn the game, have fun, and even win a few games,” said Brandon Mackie, co-founder of Pickleheads, which is an online community website for the sport. “But advanced players stay challenged and keep coming back for more.”


From its invention by three vacationers in 1965, pickleball’s popularity skyrocketed in recent years. Pickleheads estimates that there are 36.5 million pickleball players across the US, and the nation has built over 10,000 facilities to accommodate them.


The sport’s jump in popularity among local organizations and churches resembles the softball craze the Southeast experienced during the late 1990s and early 2000s, but whether pickleball is a passing trend or a new American pastime remains to be seen.

Morgan serves as the community contact for a Pickleball tournament, from May 5-7, scheduled during the Tennessee Strawberry Festival and is still open for registration.


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