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Pickleball has plenty of juice in the Highland Lakes

Open to Horseshoe Bay Resort members and guests only, the eight dedicated pickleball courts were built in 2018. Photo by Ronnie Madrid

Pick up a pickleball paddle, and you’ll quickly pick up a passion for the game, predict the local enthusiasts who have seen a recent explosion in the sport’s popularity in the Highland Lakes.

“What I really enjoy is seeing people who go out there one, two, or three times and get hooked,” said Dave Marsh, a retired oil engineer who helps coach tennis at Faith Academy of Marble Falls. “You can see it in their eyes.”

Called the fastest-growing game in America, the number of pickleball players in the United States increased 650 percent over the past six years, according to the USA Pickleball Association. About 85 new court locations open across the country every month.

Pickleball was created in 1965 by three men in Washington state who wanted to play badminton but couldn’t find the right equipment. They gathered together ping-pong paddles, a badminton net, and a Wiffle ball. They lowered the net when they discovered the ball bounced nicely on the asphalt surface on which they were playing. Over the next two years, they created a set of rules and the game took off. It was named, supposedly, after the dog of one of the inventors, Pickles, who kept running off with the ball.

The YMCA of the Highland Lakes at Galloway-Hammond was one of the first facilities to offer pickleball in the area. The sport doesn’t require the construction of new courts, just a regulation pickleball net in an existing gym. Pickleball players set up three nets in the First United Methodist of Marble Falls gymnasium, starting in 2016, for regular games five days a week. When the games end, they just take down the nets.

Other locations, such as Horseshoe Bay Resort and the city of Horseshoe Bay built dedicated pickleball courts.

All these options bring in new players every day.

“In the last two years, I’ve seen 60 to 80 to 100 people get hooked on (pickleball), and now they’re coming out all the time,” Marsh said.

A former college football player whose injuries kept him out of the pros, Marsh first took up tennis to keep active and competitive. Now 68, he discovered pickleball at the YMCA in Burnet.

He watched what looked to him like a small version of tennis or a large version of table tennis for about three months before picking up a paddle himself.

“I went out there and really liked the game,” Marsh said.

Matt Laz, the pickleball pro at Horseshoe Bay Resort, said he’s seen players quickly take to the game after coming from other sports such as table tennis, racquetball, volleyball, basketball, and even chess.

Playing singles or doubles, the court looks a lot like a giant ping-pong tabletop, Laz said. The courts are smaller than in tennis and the ball is served underhand rather than overhand. Also different from tennis, the court has a line to prevent players from getting too close to the net.

Although early adopters saw the sport as an alternative to more physical games as they reached retirement age, pickleball is growing in popularity among all age groups, including youngsters.

“I feel confident to predict that we’re about to see the junior pickleball boom,” Laz said.

Camp Champions, a popular summer destination for young overnight campers on Lake LBJ, has 11 pickleball courts.

“For kids, you can’t learn how to play tennis in a week at camp,” Laz said. “With pickleball, in the matter of an hour, you kind of feel like you’re awesome at it.”

Coach Marsh sees similar interest from his young athletes.

“The kids at Faith (Academy) have been bugging me to take them (to the pickleball courts) after tennis practice,” Marsh said. “They love it.”

The three courts at First United Methodist Church of Marble Falls are popular with all age groups with up to 30 people playing every day.

“We’ve taken people who probably never played anything, any sport, and they may not do it as fluidly as somebody who’s played tennis or racquetball or something else, but they learn to play and they’ve learned to play OK,” said Susan Tope, who brought the sport to the church when she and her husband, both avid players, moved to Marble Falls from the San Antonio area.

Regardless of age and ability, Laz said people who pick up pickleball enjoy it because of the rush and excitement of the close competition.

“It’s meant to be played calm, (but) it’s almost impossible to stay calm because you’re so close to your opponents,” Laz said. “We call it ‘pickleball panic.’ There’s a rush of banging a Wiffle ball back and forth at each other. It’s exciting whether you win or lose the point.”

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