CRANBERRY TWP — Dave Stewart had a slight smirk on his face.
Stewart offered an entertaining — but highly implausible — reason for why he enjoys playing pickleball.
“The babes,” Stewart said. “They roll out in their wheelchairs to watch me ... You can’t beat it.”
Stewart, a 65-year-old Butler resident who graduated from Butler High School and Slippery Rock University, picked up the racket sport 30 years ago at a Recreational Sports Conference in El Paso, Texas.
While not everyone has Stewart’s fan base, he understands why pickleball has seen growth in Butler County.
It’s an opportunity for older people — the program at the Rose E. Schneider Family YMCA in Cranberry Township typically features players 50 and up — to socialize and stay active.
“You look at the people who are here and you don’t see a lot of athletic-looking people,” said Stewart, who has medaled in 29 tournaments. “They can pick up the game. It’s a simple game to learn. It’s so much fun to see it progress.”
When volunteer Bill Billeter came to the YMCA in 2009, pickleball was a 90-minute, once-a-week program that drew 12 to 15 people.
It’s blossomed into a sport that now goes five days a week with six courts and averages 20-45 people a week. Last year, the YMCA had over 145 people between September and August.
Evans City resident Stella Neely, 70, started playing when she got tired of using the exercise equipment.
She found something that allowed her to be social and competitive.
“That’s the best part. When I was just coming out to work on the machines, I could find any excuse to stay home,” Neely said. “With this, I find excuses to go.”
Billeter expects there to be 160 participants this year.
The Cranberry Municipal Building, Pine Township and Ross Township have also started up games.
“When I retired in October 2009, I was looking for things that would take up my time,” Billeter said. “When I first came, we used the wooden paddles that were downstairs. Today, 99.9 percent of the people play with their own paddles.”
Pickleball is similar to badminton and tennis. The size of the court is 20 by 44 feet for doubles and singles.
The court is lined like a tennis court, but the outer courts, instead of the inner courts are divided in half be their service lines.
The rackets are similar to ping-pong paddles and the balls used are like wiffleballs, but more durable. Points are scored by the serving team only and games are played to 11 points.
Economy Borough resident Kathy Ennis, 57, was intrigued by the game which was invented by U.S. State representative Joel Pritchard of Bainbridge Island, Wash., in 1965. Ennis moved to the area three years ago.
Ennis, who never played competitive sports before, was always intrigued by tennis, but never had an opportunity to play growing up in Canton, Ohio.
“I saw them playing and thought that looks a little like tennis, but easier,” Ennis said. “I went down and they were closing up for the day and Bill was putting the nets away. He said to come back the next day and he would work with me.”
Ennis, much like Billeter when he picked up the sport, took a quick liking to it. She bought a net and can play anywhere outside.
Improving isn’t her biggest concern.
“This is my social network,” Ennis said. “It’s fun and I guess I like to see myself improving, but I’m not a competitive person, so I could care less if I win or lose.”
Pickleball, while being an easy sport to understand, also allows players to bring their own flair to the court.
Watching a session of pickleball at the YMCA features a wide variety of rackets.
Ennis chose a paddle shaded in Pittsburgh Steelers’ colors, while Stewart normally plays tournaments with the Michigan State University logo adorning one side.
The rackets are made of wood, composite material or fiberglass and can run anywhere from $35 to $110.
“I like the heaviness of the wood ones,” Neely said. “It’s all about what I’m comfortable with.”
Stewart wants to put a court in his backyard.
“I don’t go to win medals. I go to make memories,” Stewart said. “That’s what I’m doing. When I think about all the places I’ve played, who I’ve met, who I’ve played and what I’ve done ... it’s a blast.”