Sweet on Pickleball

Craig Heinly, of Chapel Hill, chases down a well-placed ball during a game at Cary Tennis Park.

Pickleball is one of the fastest growing sports in America, according to USA Pickleball. That growth has definitely hit the town of Cary, which has 21 pickleball courts at six locations with more on the way.

In Apex, the rate of which the sport is growing is nine new players per day, according to Craig Setzer of Apex’s Parks and Recreation department. That growth forced Apex to add 16 pickleball courts within the past three years.

In Morrisville, Travis St. Brice, a fitness specialist for the town’s parks and recreation department, says pickleball has a lower barrier of play, which helps people pick it up easily. At the Morrisville Aquatics & Fitness Center there are free clinics on the sport and reserved time to play.

Cary Tennis Park has four lighted pickleball courts.

Pickleball started out as a game mostly geared toward senior citizens, but now the popularity of the sport has grown to reach people of all ages and genders. The combination of the easy-to-play style of the game along with the social aspect of doubles play has helped the sport reach new heights recently, even in the middle of a pandemic.

Local ambassadors

The local popularity of this contagious sport owes much to Mike Walsh of Cary, who started playing pickleball with his wife Lyn in 2010.

Walsh was officially named a U.S. American Pickleball Association ambassador for Cary in 2011, and his friend Luis Vasquez was appointed as an ambassador later on. The two men promoted the sport at various parks and community centers in Cary and eventually started the town’s first tournament at Bond Park.

Pickleball paddles, which can cost up to $150 or more, vary in material and weight.

“It took considerable effort to launch pickleball in Cary and neighboring communities,” Walsh said.

The biggest obstacle was that no one had ever heard of the sport, he says.

“Our primary teaching emphasis was in Cary, but we also worked with Holly Springs, Fuquay-Varina, Garner, Raleigh, Durham, Hope Mills, and Pinehurst,” Walsh said. “Once people experienced the game, they were hooked and spread the word.”

Dana and Matt Rice celebrate a point scored.

Pandemic boost

Today, thousands of people in Western Wake play the sport. The Triangle Pickleball Enthusiasts Meetup group has over 700 members from Cary, Holly Springs, Apex, Morrisville and Raleigh. The Pickleball Carolina Facebook page has more than 1,500 followers.

Marga Beasley, a USAPA ambassador since 2013, grew up playing tennis. However, after she got to a certain age, the Cary resident found that her body could not keep up with the harsh demands of the sport. When she heard about pickleball, and how it’s similar to tennis, but more easygoing, she took the introductory class in Cary. She was immediately hooked.

“Anybody can pick it up and start playing,” Beasley said. “It’s dependent on your hand-eye coordination. The more you work at it, the better you get, just like any other sport or game you play. It’s good for all ages and for people who have had injuries or joint problems in the past.”

Kevin Gordon congratulates Dana Rice after he and Ryan Semchenko, far right, played Rice and her husband, Matt, at Cary Tennis Park.

After community centers, businesses and gymnasiums started opening after the COVID-19 pandemic, pickleball was one of the first sports to hit the ground running.

Players felt comfortable, Beasley says, because the rules already include social distancing and staying apart from other players on the court.

“It’s a safe thing to do outdoors with others,” she said. “It’s not a contact sport. You can socially distance from your opponent the whole time. It’s perceived by many as a safe activity to do.”

Matt and Dana Rice, top, take on Kevin Gordon, bottom left, and Ryan Semchenko for pickleball game.

More courts

Patrick Duffy has worked as a program specialist for the town of Cary’s parks and recreation department for three years. No other program has grown faster than pickleball, he says.

“It appeals to the older crowd who are getting out of tennis for health reasons, but they still want that social element of playing sports together,” Duffy said.

“Pickleball exploded for the younger generations during the pandemic. …It gave people a chance to get out of the house and get some fresh air. We just can’t keep up with the growth.”

Deb Quidort, left, and Beth Warren cover the net during a game at Bond Park Community Center. The social aspect of pickleball is one of many reasons the game has surged in popularity.

Paul Kuhn, the Cary parks and recreation department’s facilities design and construction manager, says several projects are in the works to serve local pickleballers.

Lights will be added to the three outdoor courts at Carpenter Park, allowing participants to keep playing at night. There are also two courts under construction at Walnut Street Park, and lights will be added there as well. Six pickleball courts are also planned for the new 20-acre park at McCrimmon Parkway and Green Level Church Road in west Cary.

JD Cunningham, of Apex, serves during a pickleball game.

Pleasant Park in Apex currently has three pickleball courts, but Setzer says three more should be added soon. The town also recently added an indoor court at the John M. Brown Community Center.

“The demand on our parks and tennis courts increased greatly during the pandemic as residents looked for alternatives to traditional gyms and programs,” he said. “The last year has required us to balance the need and demand of providing additional opportunities in many of the town’s programming areas, including pickleball. Within the last year we’ve set designated times for our outdoor multipurpose courts to accommodate pickleball.”

The growth in Apex hasn’t fazed the parks and recreation department. Setzer welcomes the challenge of having more people engaged in the popular sport.

Gary Ward, of Apex, volleys during a pickleball game at Bond Park Community Center.

“Having residents interested in using our facilities, coming together to share a common recreation pursuit that is a benefit to their health is a great thing in our community,” he said.

In Morrisville, St. Brice expects more residents to pick up pickleball.

“I think it will continue to grow in popularity,” St. Brice said. “I hope pickleball courts will be built somewhere around town. In the meantime, I will continue to build our community play here and begin to organize league play for our players.”

Signs advertising pickleball apps and tournaments hang on the fence at Carpenter Park in Cary.

How to Play

Pickleball has elements of tennis, badminton and table tennis. Two or four players use solid paddles made of wood or composite materials to hit a perforated polymer ball over a net.

The ball is served with an underarm stroke, so that contact with the ball is made below waist level in an upward arc. The server hits from behind the baseline on one side of the center line and aims diagonally to the opponent’s service court.

Only the serving side may score a point. Play ends for a point when one side commits a fault, when the ball goes out of bounds, a player steps into the non-volley zone, or when a player touches the net with their body or paddle.

The first side scoring 11 points, leading by at least two points, wins the game. If the two sides are tied at 10 points apiece, the side that goes ahead by two points wins the game.

A bucket of polymer balls await pickleball players.

Where to Play

Bond Park, 801 High House Road, Cary
Herbert Young Community Center, 101 Wilkinson Ave., Cary
Carpenter Park, 4420 Louis Stephens Drive, Cary
Cary Tennis Park, 2727 Louis Stephens Drive, Cary
White Oak Park 1216 Jenks Carpenter Road, Cary
Middle Creek School Park, 151 Middle Creek Park Ave., Apex
Apex Nature Park, 2600 Evans Road, Apex
Kelly Road Park, 1609 Kelly Road, Apex
Morrisville Community Park, 1520 Morrisville Parkway, Morrisville

For more information about playing pickleball, visit:

1 Comment

  • Dan Wenzinger says:

    Cary does not have 21 pickleball courts. They have 10 outdoor courts and 10 part-time temporary courts setup in 3 gyms at select times on select days. The growth of the game in Cary is being limited by the number of courts available. Many players are being forced to travel to surrounding Towns to find courts to play on. Hopefully our town officials will see this and prioritize court construction. We need a site with 16 or more courts for pickleball players to meet for play. Come on Cary you can do this!

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