Pingpong-tennis combo continues to expand popularity

KENAI — Before every serve in a game of pickleball, Juanita Owens called to Tony Kaser to ask what the score was. If other people tried to answer, she’d wave them off, insisting he knows it.

After a second of pondering, he answered, usually correctly. With that, he enthusiastically served the ball.

It might go far over the court into the corner of the Sterling Community Center gym. Usually, the other participants would call encouragement and let him try again to serve the ball to the other team. With measured movements, Kaser would rearrange his stance and try again.

Kaser was one of the first participants in a new series of the popular game at the Sterling Community Center targeted toward individuals with disabilities. Participation has been scant so far, but as it continues Thursday afternoons throughout March, participation may pick up, said Les Baker, a Hope Community Resources worker who organized the event.

“Scheduling things with this population can be difficult,” Baker said. “Right now we’re planning to extend it through March.”

At the game on Feb. 18, two participants showed up. To balance out the teams, Baker and Owens played as well, switching teams and sides to encourage the two to participate.

Essentially a giant version of pingpong, pickleball has teams of two stand on each side of a low, 36-inch net in the Sterling Community Center gym. One player serves the ball, which looks like a highlighter-yellow whiffle ball, to the player diagonally opposite. The team that lets the ball bounce twice, hits the ball in the net or hits the ball out-of-bounds loses the point. Players are equipped with a paddle slightly smaller than a tennis racket.

Pickleball has become a wildly popular game with the general residents of the borough — the Sterling Community Center hosts games four nights per week these days, said Rochelle Hanson, the administrative assistant for the center.

“I get folks coming in from Nikiski and Ninilchik to come play,” Hanson said.

Hanson said she has heard talk of starting leagues in other places around the Kenai Peninsula as well. Nothing has been organized yet, she said.

The Funny River community would like its own pickleball court as well. In the borough’s annual list of capital improvement projects, the Funny River Chamber of Commerce requested $150,000 for improvements to the outdoor and recreation areas, one of which is the addition of a pickleball court.

There are at least five other cities that have places to play pickleball across Alaska, according to the USA Pickleball Association — Anchorage, Fairbanks, Sitka, Metlakatla and Homer. The association says it is not a complete list. It does not include Sterling’s games.

Owens is one of the regular instructors during the week and helped the two participants in the pickleball game Feb. 18, Kaser and Kyle Heffner, to learn to play the game. When a serve went awry, she let him retry. When Heffner swung for the ball and missed, she encouraged him to step forward.

Baker said the game is open to all participants, not just the adaptive population. Even those without disabilities can come and play with the group, he said.

“We’d love to get the community involved and playing here,” Baker said.

The adaptive pickleball games take place on Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Sterling Community Center. Members play for free and nonmembers pay $6 to play.

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