Pickleball gets a boost

Private donations will upgrade courts at Oconto Falls’ Pleasantview Park
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Alice Emerick, foreground, prepares to return a volley Sunday in a game of pickleball at Pleasantview Park in Oconto Falls. Looking on are her playing partner, Dennis O’Neill, and opponents Kristy Knutson and her husband, Mark Emerick. (Times Herald photo by Warren Bluhm)

Mark and Alice Emerick arrived at Pleasantview Park in Oconto Falls at 3:45 p.m. Sunday; it was their turn to set up the pickleball nets for the 4 o’clock crowd.

Asked whether anyone would come out to play on Mother’s Day, Mark Emerick chuckled.

“Some of the people you’re about to meet would come play on Christmas morning if they had a chance,” he said.

Sure enough, within a half-hour about a dozen people were taking turns on the converted basketball court playing pickleball — a paddle sport, played with a plastic ball resembling a wiffle ball, that combines elements of tennis, ping pong and volleyball.

The Oconto Falls City Council last week gave its blessings to a plan to use private dollars to refinish the court, which has its share of nicks and cracks, with three permanent pickleball courts painted into the new surface.

The basketball nets would remain in place, and the fenced-in area could be used as a basketball court anytime.

Doug and Donna Nelson appeared in front of the aldermen May 8 to pitch the idea.

Conceived by a Washington state congressman and his family and friends on a rainy day in 1965, pickleball has evolved into a sport played by 6 million people in every state of the union and several other countries, Doug Nelson said.

The Oconto Falls court draws up to two dozen people four times a week, ranging in age from the Nelsons’ 7-year-old granddaughter to an 87-year-old, the retired teacher said. It’s one of two local courts listed on the United States of America Pickleball Association website, usapa.org; the other is at the Bond Community Center in Oconto.

Pickleball is played at Pleasantview Park starting at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 4 p.m. Sunday.

“We have players coming in from a 50-mile radius. They come into town, and guess what they do? They spend some money,” Nelson said.

The city has encouraged the group by painting the 15-by-20-foot courts into the surface of the basketball court. The pickleball courts are small enough that if someone wants to use a basketball net at one end, the area can be shared.

HSHS St. Clare Memorial Hospital paid for the Oconto Falls High School metalworking department to build a storage box for the pickleball nets and other equipment, and the city installed it courtside so the players don’t have to haul the equipment around.

“We’re so grateful to the city for this facility and for their support,” Mark Emerick said Sunday.

In addition to the hospital, donations have come from the Oconto Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, the Lions and Lioness clubs as well as the players themselves. More than $14,000 has been raised, with $1,628 to go, Nelson said. The work will begin as soon as the money is in.

“I’m not asking for money,” he told the council, “but anyone who wants to donate, I am more than happy to speak to you.”

The asphalt court will be sealed with two layers of acrylic filler to smooth out the surface, then topped with two coats of blue-and-green paint to define the pickleball courts, Nelson said. The city also plans to improve the drainage to one corner where standing water tends to accumulate after rainfall.

The Nelsons have become ambassadors for the sport of pickleball, which they started playing at the Bond Center in 2011. The site at Pleasantview is entering its fourth season.

“Anybody can play it, and it’s healthy,” Nelson said. “They’re starting to play it in middle and high school classes. It’s reached the point where more people are playing pickleball than basketball on those courts.”

The high school is planning to create three pickleball courts in the auxiliary gym, and the Nelsons have taught the sport to five physical education classes as guest instructors.

“Pickleball is all over the country,” he said. “We just went on a trip and went to (usapa.org) and found places to play everywhere.”