Vaipuna Toutaiolepo returns a pickleball over the net Saturday afternoon at Floyd Dryden Middle School. Toutaiolepo, a member of the Alaska Crimson Bear Pickleball Club, was among dozens of players to participate in a tournament. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Vaipuna Toutaiolepo returns a pickleball over the net Saturday afternoon at Floyd Dryden Middle School. Toutaiolepo, a member of the Alaska Crimson Bear Pickleball Club, was among dozens of players to participate in a tournament. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Simply having a (pickle)ball

Tournament gathers two teams for games and a good time.

Teams separated by over 1,500 miles were brought together by more than pickleball —although there was plenty of that too.

The Alaska Crimson Bear Pickleball Club hosted the San Francisco Eagles club for a Friday and Saturday tournament held at Floyd Dryden Middle School, which featured dozens of pickleball games by day and celebrations steeped in Polynesian culture in the evening.

While pickleball, a racket sport that combines elements of ping pong, tennis and badminton, is widely reported to be the fastest-growing sport in America, it still seems unlikely that these two particular clubs would link up for a two-day tournament. So what brought them together?

“It’s a love story, bro,” said TJ Teaupa of the San Francisco Eagles with a laugh. “The mischief started between me and my wife (Seini Toetuu from Juneau). We had friends on both sides.”

Sonatane Pasina and Freddie Vaenuku Jr. touch rackets Saturday during a pickleball tournament at Floyd Dryden High School. The Alaska Crimson Bear Pickleball Club hosted the San Francisco Eagles, whose club members donned noticeable shirts. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Sonatane Pasina and Freddie Vaenuku Jr. touch rackets Saturday during a pickleball tournament at Floyd Dryden High School. The Alaska Crimson Bear Pickleball Club hosted the San Francisco Eagles, whose club members donned noticeable shirts. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

So with an established connection, the two clubs decided to to get together for a tournament that allowed for competitive play and for the Lower 48 team to see Alaska’s capital city. Juneau’s team received a boost from former NFL defensive lineman Stephen Paea, whose wife, Vika Toetuu Paea, is from Juneau. The husband-wife won the tournament’s advanced mixed bracket.

Stephen Paea sends a pickleball over the net Saturday at Floyd Dryden Middle School. Paea and wife, Vika Toetuu Paea, claimed the top spot in the tournament’s advanced mixed division. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Stephen Paea sends a pickleball over the net Saturday at Floyd Dryden Middle School. Paea and wife, Vika Toetuu Paea, claimed the top spot in the tournament’s advanced mixed division. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Members of the Juneau club said they were glad to hold an event that showed robust support for the sport they love.

“It’s such an awesome, awesome environment to be around,” said Alaska Crimson Bear Mele Maake, who was one half of doubles teams that claimed top spots in both the women’s intermediate and mixed intermediate brackets.

She added: “It’s a lot of fun for Juneau. We’re getting some very good experience.”

Vini Lata, an Alaska Crimson Bear some call “coach,” said he’s pleased to see the sport find supporters in town. Lata, who played tennis in college, praised pickleball’s accessibility for people who may have never previously played a competitive sport as well as folks whose athletic primes may have come and went.

“This is a game that anyone can learn,” Lata said. “I call it your second-chance sport.”

He said he’s seen the sport help young club members build sportsmanship and better fitness habits, and that it was meaningful to see so many gathered to play a sport he cares about.

“It just brings tears to my eyes that they’re passionate about it like I am,” Lata said. “The biggest goal is health.”

Taufa Toetuu and Loni Veikoso celebrate during a pickleball match Saturday at Floyd Dryden Middle School. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Taufa Toetuu and Loni Veikoso celebrate during a pickleball match Saturday at Floyd Dryden Middle School. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Maake said she anticipates pickleball passion that will continue to spread as more locals discover the sport, and plans are being made for a tournament open to all of Juneau too.

Mele Maake extends to reach a pickleball during the intermediate mixed bracket championship Saturday at Floyd Dryden Middle School. Maake, a member of the Alaska Crimson Bear Pickleball Club, was one half of two first-place teams. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Mele Maake extends to reach a pickleball during the intermediate mixed bracket championship Saturday at Floyd Dryden Middle School. Maake, a member of the Alaska Crimson Bear Pickleball Club, was one half of two first-place teams. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Tournament winners

Womens advanced: Marissa Tuifale and Vika Toetuu Paea, Alaska Crimson Bear Pickleball Club.

Mens advanced: Freddie Vaenuku Jr. and Edwin Moungaloa Latu, San Francisco Eagles.

Womens intermediate: Mele Maake and Salote Maake, ACB.

Mens intermediate: Fred Vaenuku Sr. and Malota Fetu’u, SFE.

Mixed intermediate: Mele Maake and Ongo Tupou, ACB.

Mixed advanced: Stephen Paea and Vika Toetuu Paea, ACB.

• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.