Kewaneans cling to scorching racquet sport

It was a chilly August morning, just 69 degrees, with a light breeze, when a group of women gathered in Northeast Park. About nine of them met on a Wednesday to partake in their new obsession, pickleball.

“It’s the fastest growing sport in the United States,” said Bobbi Rapczak, whose home borders the south side of the park.

Rapczak was one of many Northside Picklers, the name the women gave to their pickleball group, who made an appearance at the Kewanee Park Board meeting in August calling for safer court surfaces and more land in Kewanee Parks.

Following that meeting, Rapczak said she sent a letter to Kewanee Parks manager Andrew Dwyer summarizing their requests, wishes and suggestions.

“We are taxpayers,” she said. “When you have such a big group, we want more places to play.”

Northside Picklers games and game days are completely unorganized, an aspect they seem to enjoy. Everyone can guess who will or will not show up three times a week in the morning, although they try to follow everyone’s plans using group text.

Each day, about eight to twelve women, as well as a few men, could show up to play. With two courts, it’s first come, first served. There are no official pairings, no teams, no rivalries, and very little competitiveness within the group.

“Just grab a partner and play,” said Dianne Packee, who has been playing the sport for about a year.

Most of the women and men who play pickleball in the park on weekdays are retired. With the local bowling alley closed, the sport offers older people not only exercise but also a chance to socialize, Packee said.

“You’re active, but it’s still easy, but hard,” she said.

Karen Stickle has been playing this sport for about five years.

“It’s exercise with lots of laughs,” she said.

Ricci McRae is a relative newcomer to the sport. She has been playing for less than a year, but plays regularly with the Northside Picklers.

“It’s so much fun. We laugh,” McRae said. “There’s no pressure.”

The cost of playing pickleball is relatively low and makes the sport appealing to a wide range of people. A racket, which looks like an oversized ping pong racket, can cost between $20 and $100, depending on the material used to make it. Other than a pair of tennis shoes, no dress code or uniform is required. Women admit they are not in the business of making fashion statements.

But the sport has become an obsession for many of them, and they are the first to admit they are addicted.

“We schedule our doctor’s appointments and nail appointments around that,” Packee said.

The age of the Northside Picklers ranges from 59 to 77 years old. Only one of them is still working.

“The rest of us are somewhere in between,” Rapczak said.

Northside Picklers Ricci McRae, left, and Dianne Packee compete in a pickleball match at Northeast Park last month.  The group of about a dozen seniors play pickleball three times a week at the park.  The group says pickleball is a popular sport that continues to grow in the United States.

Playing styles differ and women agree that it’s easy to spot former tennis players whose swing gives them an advantage. Skill levels also vary between players, but no one seems to care. The goal is not to win; it’s for fun.

There are no hard and fast rules for court times and since no appointments can be made for the Park District Courts, it is simply a courtesy, the women said, to limit the time for game at one hour to give everyone a chance to play.

The rules of pickleball are a hodgepodge of other sports – a conglomeration of tennis, badminton and ping pong to name a few. Instead of a reverse serve like in tennis, the plastic ball bounces before being served diagonally to the other side.

The court is smaller than a tennis court, but laid out in zones, with the front area called the “kitchen”. A Northeast Pickler warned that players are not allowed to stay in this area, a joke that is not lost on the group.

The two-bounce rule requires the ball to bounce off both sides of the court before the volley begins. Games are played at 11, 15 or 21, and the game is won by two points, called the scoring rule.

Stealing the ball in a no-volley zone, an area seven feet from the net and extending along the net on both sides of the pitch, is not allowed and is called the “kitchen rule”. Unlike tennis, the serve must be kept below the waist.

The origins of how the sport got its name are mysterious to many players, and there are actually two versions. The origin story of the sport, however, is well recorded.

According to the Long Cove Club records, the game was created by Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell. In 1965, the two fathers, in an attempt to engage their bored guests at Pritchard’s on Bainbridge Island, Washington, hatched the game on an old badminton court, using spare parts from other games, namely ping pong paddles and a wiffle ball.

As the weekend progressed, house rules were established, although there weren’t many of them. The badminton net has been lowered from 60” to just 36”. When the pair presented their new creation to another friend named Barney McCullum, the three men brainstormed and, taking inspiration from the game of badminton, came up with a set of new rules for the sake of uniformity.

In 1967, Pritchard built a lot in the backyard of his neighbor and closest friend, Bob O’Brian. This move to build a permanent court “cemented their home game even further into a lovable pastime.” Later, the game would “take off in the Pacific Northwest” and a company called Pickleball, Inc. was started in 1972 and began selling equipment. The company would later become essential in the game’s transition into a legitimate sport.

The two stories surrounding how the sport got its name both focus on the Pritchards. One story goes that Pritchard’s wife, Joan, began calling the game pickleball because “the combination of different sports reminded her of the pickle boat crew, where rowers were chosen from the remains of other boats”. But his friend Barney McCullum told a different story, saying the game was named after Pritchard’s dog, Pickles, who often ran away with the ball.

As the temperatures cool, the outdoor pickleball season will soon be over for the Northside Picklers, but that won’t stop their weekday games. Last year, Jon DeBord added several indoor pickleball courts to his establishment, the LOTT, on 10th and Main streets. The women say he supported pickleball players in the community. Monthly fees are nominal for use of the courts, Packee said, and include access to the rest of its facilities.

The hope of the Northside Picklers is to eventually hold tournaments in Kewanee and raise money for charity. Several of the women have already played in out-of-town tournaments. More courts in Kewanee parks would make local events possible, they said.

Over the past year, the park board has been discussing replacing the tennis courts with a multipurpose surface at Windmont Park, a surface that would allow for the addition of pickleball courts. The women say they will continue to appeal to the park district to make this a reality.

“I would like to see four pickleball courts in Windmont,” Rapczak said.

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