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Pickleball growing in popularity in Butler County

Pam Kaylor, of Butler, returns the ball during a game of pickleball at Butler YMCA on Thursday morning. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle

Worn-out wooden paddles have given way to domed courts — and pickleball has become so much more than a game with a silly-sounding name. In Butler County, the sport’s roots can be traced back to Cranberry Township’s Rose E. Schneider Family YMCA.

“I moved here in December 2009, started playing then,” Cranberry Township resident Bill Billeter said. “In 2010, the Y was actually planning to eliminate pickleball and they asked if I wanted to volunteer to coordinate it. It was only played six months out of the year and we averaged 12 or 15 people.

“This was actually the starting place in the Greater Pittsburgh area.”

Billeter remembers using outdated equipment, but improving the quality of the paddles, namely, began drawing new players.

“They were just technically a piece of lumber,” he said. “After four or five months of being there, myself as well as other people, we started getting the ‘real’ paddles. It could’ve been a graphite or a composition paddle, versus just a piece of wood.”

Burgeoning Popularity

Bruce Mazzoni was almost confused the first time he heard of pickleball. A township supervisor, he recalled people requesting courts at a board meeting around 2015.

“I had no idea what pickleball was,” Mazzoni admitted. “It was a goofy name, so I was curious on it.”

He headed to the YMCA to learn about the game and came away impressed. As president of the Cranberry Township Community Chest, Mazzoni was also aware of plans for a sports complex at Graham Park. A light bulb went off in his head.

“We made a proposal to make the project of the year these sports courts,” he said. “With that came raising money. Each sport that wanted to be represented had to raise the money for that particular sport.”

About $90,000 was raised for pickleball, enough to build four courts. Still, Mazzoni believed the sport had more potential. He went to the township and proposed the Cranberry Township Pickleball Association, promising that memberships would pay off a loan for even more courts within three years.

“Sure enough, we were able to pay it off in 15 months,” Mazzoni said. “Two years later, we grew so much that we had to do another expansion.”

The association has undergone projects such as adding lights to the courts, and the current project will add six courts in a seasonal dome.

The CTPA is also holding its largest ladder/tournament event over three different weekends this summer. The cost varies depending on level of play. Contact Billeter at wwbill4@yahoo.com or at 724-473-0770 for more information.

Puttu Bhat, of Butler, plays pickleball at the Butler YMCA on Thursday morning. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle

Easy to Learn

Pickleball combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong.

“Many people that play pickleball now used to be tennis players, squash players, and it’s played on a smaller court,” Billeter said. “It’s still a fast sport. Maybe there isn’t as much physical liability … If you’ve played tennis or you’ve played ping-pong or some sport like that, it’s very easy to pick up.”

Kathy Seezox goes to the Butler YMCA once or twice a week to play. She didn’t know anything about it before trying her hand at it.

“Since I’ve retired, it’s an additional way to exercise and have fun,” said Seezox. “I normally jog and I was looking for a sport I could play as a team and in a group … I like the friendship. I like the fact that I’m able to get in a good cardio workout, too.”

Seezox has taken lessons from Dennis Zellefrow, with whom she sometimes plays on the gym courts at the YMCA.

“The more you play, the better you get,” Zellefrow said. “To some people, it’s recreation. Some people take it really serious. It depends on the person. It depends sometimes on the age, how much they can do. It’s a good sport.”

Not to mention, players of all ages are flocking to the courts.

“You meet so many friends with pickleball and the way pickleball is played,” Mazzoni said. “The rotation it goes through, you meet a lot of people. It’s not like tennis where you need to find a partner.”

“I would say 60-75% were people that were 60 and older,” Billeter said of when he started playing. “Today, I would say that there’s 60-65% that are younger than 65. You’ve seen that whole change. Back then, you would never see someone in their 20s or 30s playing pickleball.”

Kathy Seezox, of Zelienople, chases down the ball as she plays pickleball at the Butler YMCA on Thursday morning. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle

Membership Pays

Along with scheduled play in two-hour segments, CTPA makes sure players get the most out of their competitive experience.

“We match people’s level so that they have a more enjoyable game,” Mazzoni said. “In doing that, they’re not going to face a really tough opponent and — vice versa — a good player isn’t going to waste time playing against a player they could easily beat.”

Depending on frequency of play, membership rates range between $80 and $160. It’s 10% more expensive for nonresidents. CTPA offers a beginner’s class and an early player development window where prospective members can decide if the sport is for them.

The association plays on 13 courts at Graham Park. Another six will open in June and be covered by a dome this fall.

“This, I believe is our seventh year,” Billeter said. “We started out with zero. Last year, we were over 1,000 (members). Now, we’re probably going to increase that 40 or 50% — to 1,400 or 1,500 — in just an additional year with those six courts.”

Puttu Bhat, of Butler, serves the ball during a pickleball game at Butler YMCA on Thursday morning. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle
Nick VanGorder, of Prospect, returns the ball during a pickleball game at Butler YMCA on Thursday morning. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle

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