NORWICH – The Norwich YMCA pickleball group is actively preparing for the 2023 senior games that will be held at SUNY Cortland on June 14 through the 16.
The YMCA members enjoy actively playing pickleball all year round but the Empire State Senior Games is a special event the group looks forward to attending every year. The group ranges from beginners to advanced and are categorized by skill level. Today, pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the nation.
Pickleball originated in the late 1960s in Bainbridge Island, Washington and since its origin, the sport has taken off and gained wide popularity.
Pickleball is a sport that requires a paddle and a ball that is similar to a wiffle ball, only slightly heavier. The best paddle for most beginning players to learn on is a medium grip that also has medium power, but each person can be different. The medium paddles are typically made of graphite, which have a 4 1/4 to a 4 3/8 inch circumference and weigh less than eight ounces.
Once you have a paddle, pickleballs, a USA Pickleball Association approved net that should be 36-inches high, along with two to four people, you can start playing.
The object of each game is to score 11 points and you must win by at least two points if the score is close, such as 11-10. Points are only scored by the team that serves the ball.
One side serves first, typically the far side, to start the game and if they lose their serve, the serve goes to the other team. After that each round consists of two serves. The teams get two serves per rotation and only the serving team can score.
Each server must call the score and say which server they are, a one or a two. To start the game, the person would say, “zero, zero, two,” meaning the score is 0 to 0 and it is the team's second serve that round.
There are different ways to serve the ball. Some prefer the drop method, where they drop the ball, let it bounce and then hit it or simply prepare to hit the ball with the paddle underneath without any type of drop. When serving, the server must be behind the backline and the ball must reach over the net diagonally between the center line called the “kitchen line” and the opposing backline to be considered good.
The person receiving the ball must let the ball bounce before hitting it back, same as the person receiving the return. At the time of the serve, the opposing player’s partner is standing on the opposite side at the kitchen line, where each player transitions to after game play has started.Then, the game can go on until someone commits a fault like the ball going out of bounds or getting caught in the net or the opposing player misses hitting the ball back on a good shot made.
After a team scores, the teammates also change position by swapping spots/rotating with their partner on their side of the court. If the team loses the serve, it goes to the next server or to the other team until the winner is determined.
These rules can be confusing for a brand-new player, but once you learn and get a feel for the game, it just comes natural with experience.
The Start of YMCA Pickleball
The Norwich YMCA pickleball group formed in 2004, replacing the then badminton club. Barb LoPiccolo, the group’s instructor and one of the Senior games’ tournament of directors, was one of the “founders” of the YMCA pickleball organization.
Barb, a retired physical education teacher, didn’t know the game of pickleball until it was introduced by a group of seniors who brought it back with them from Florida. She was able to pick the game up fairly quickly from her teaching experience and from watching several videos. From that experience, she has taught several members of the group and actively teaches clinics for beginners while also helping the advanced players on making small corrections she sees during game play.
During the time of the transition between badminton and pickleball, Barb said that the YMCA was very supportive with marking the basketball court with the proper playing lines after refinishing the gymnasium floors. They also allowed the group to store their equipment box along the court, which holds nets, balls, and extra paddles.
There are also two separate levels played at the YMCA; the beginners and advanced group.
When the advanced group is not actively preparing for senior games, there is a mix between levels depending on how many people signed up for the day and are ready to play. Pickleball is a sport that anyone can play, even at different levels and can go from socially engaging to competitive play. At the end of the day, everyone is having fun no matter which level.
Aside from teaching and volunteering, Barb participates in the senior games herself. She said the senior games is not just pickleball. It is a NY State event, which also features track and field, basketball, and other sports. The senior games do have requirements as the participant must be at least 50 years of age and must pay a $45 registration fee. This fee covers all sporting events.
“The senior games are a “well kept secret” where only a few people know about it, so I try to spread the word to all my players and to everyone I know,” LoPiccolo said.
The senior games are held at SUNY Cortland’s Lusk Field House and the site also provides housing and camping areas. Spectators are welcomed.
Members playing in Senior Games
Among the YMCA pickleball group, there are several members attending this year’s senior games. Out of those committed, Tom Larkin, Tom Murphy, Jeff and Judy Conklin share their experiences. All were brand-new to the sport of pickleball and developed into the advanced levels in a short period of time, thanks to help from Barb and their peers.
Tom Larkin has been actively playing pickleball since 2007. Among those 16 years, he has participated in five senior games, three consecutive, where he won silver once. Tom had been an active member at the YMCA, where he worked out and observed the group before being asked to play. Tom will be playing in the 2023 senior games in both the men’s doubles and the mixed doubles.
While Tom enjoys pickleball, he is often annoyed by the fact that there is a lack of pickleball courts in downtown Norwich. Tom sees other big areas, like Binghamton and Utica, that have areas dedicated to pickleball while Norwich is just starting to take consideration after several people have expressed concern.
With the spread of pickleball, Tom said it would be nice to see more courts in the area, where there could potentially be tournaments in the future.
Jeff and Judy Conklin started playing pickleball in 2019 and even held games in their driveway among the Plymouth Reservoir community, which includes Tom Murphy and a few other active YMCA members. Jeff and Judy signed up for the senior games two weeks after they started playing pickleball and ended up winning bronze with only three teams in their division.
Tom Murphy started playing pickleball less than a year ago, but he has made major improvements, including taking clinics with Barb, to be among the advanced group.
The Conklins and Murphy enjoy pickleball because it’s easy and is not restricted as anyone, especially kids and elders, can play. The group also makes everyone feel welcome no matter which level you are.
When not actively preparing for senior games, the pickleball group also enjoys playing outside, where there is space available at the Conkey Ave courts.
During the summertime, the group gathers at the Conkey Ave courts, which were originally used by tennis players. When arriving at these courts, there are no longer tennis nets, just posts in case anyone wants to set up their own nets.
However, the pickleball group is prepared with their own nets and ready to play if there are enough people signed up.
A beginner who has never played pickleball in an outside setting can find it difficult at first to adjust to outside conditions, especially on a windy day.
Serving rules do change from the YMCA to outside. At the Y, the first serve comes on the side facing the curtain near court one or the church on the west side, while outside, the person in the right-side box facing the school serves first.
Tom Murphy said he appreciates the change between inside and outside, because when being outside, there is much more natural light while the YMCA has poor lighting that makes it hard to see the ball at times. However, Tom has no preference between the two settings as long as he can play.
Like Murphy and the others, Dan Thompson and his brother Andrew enjoy playing the beloved sport when they’re able to. Dan and Andrew range from beginner to intermediate based on their prior experience. Dan said he learned a lot about pickleball from the Youth Bureau, where they played at Conkey using the old tennis nets at first.
“ I enjoy pickleball because it is a competitive sport that gets your blood flowing,” he said. “ It also promotes good hand and eye coordination as you’re trained to keep your eye on the ball. It is a fun experience and I’m glad to be back playing.”
On a day to day basis, you may find around 10 or more people playing outside while eight to 10 members are preparing for senior games in the YMCA gym.
Getting the Youth involved
As the sport of pickleball continues to grow, the Norwich Youth Bureau has added pickleball to their list of summer programs this year. At this time, there are six kids signed up to take lessons, but the number should increase by the start of the program on July 3.
Lessons will take place Monday through Thursday from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. at the tennis courts in Weiler Park, an area the Y group has used before, and are open to anyone ages eight to 17. Sign ups for these lessons and all youth programs are on the Youth Bureau’s Facebook page or on the City of Norwich website through the Youth Bureau link.
The Youth Bureau and the city of Norwich is also in the process of converting the ice rinks at Borden Ave into a multi-use facility that will include pickleball courts.
“We have received generous donations from the R. C. Smith Foundation and the Fred and Estelle Mirabito foundation to resurface and paint the rink for pickleball courts,” Anthony Testani, the Youth Bureau Director, said. “ The size of the rink would allow us to have up to six pickleball courts. We anticipate work to start this summer.
YMCA Pickleball Involvement
As the Youth Bureau is actively encouraging and teaching children, there are several ways to get involved with playing pickleball at the adult to elder age range. For any active YMCA members who want to take a pickleball lesson and join the organization, Barb encourages those interested to leave their name at the front desk and they will get in contact with Barb, who will then contact them to set up a good time. She also continues spreading the knowledge of pickleball and passion for the sport simply by word of mouth.
While the YMCA Pickleball group is constantly evolving and features a wide range of members at different skill levels, I have begun learning and playing myself over the last few months.
While walking around the Y gym track with my grandmother, I always saw the pickleball group practicing and thinking that I wish I could play with them or I should find out more about them to do a story since nothing had been written before. My grandma introduced me to Barb and Barb appreciated the story idea and strongly encouraged me to come to her clinic the following Monday after my newspaper deadline.
I attended the clinic, where I joined about six ladies and Barb. I borrowed a paddle from the equipment box and learned how to properly set up a pickleball net. From there, I learned how to properly grip a paddle and swing. It’d been so long since I played pickleball in high school gym class, where I remember I wasn’t very good at any racket sports. Barb and I could both tell I was rusty, but I followed through on the drills we did. The main focus that I needed to work on was not hitting the ball too hard where it would fly out of the playing zone. I almost wanted to ‘baseball swing’ the ball, but soft touch is much better for pickleball.
After the clinic was over, I awaited other clinics, but it was late winter and an on-going storm canceled the next one. That situation didn’t stop me from going back and seeing if I could play. It took a while because the advanced players had their own clique and I was only starting out. I was able to play with my set beginners group, where I made friends quickly. We knew how many people signed up for the day using an app called TeamReach.
Sometimes, there is no one signed up when other days, there could be 10. After some of the advanced players gave me tips on how to improve my game by watching me play, I was included in their games when they weren’t practicing at their skill level for senior games. I have since played with advanced players, such as Tom Larkin, Tom Murphy, Jeff and Judy Conkin, and others while also enjoying partnering with Dan and/or Andrew Thompson.
Everyone is welcoming and I appreciate getting involved in a physical sport. I know it is difficult for young adults like myself to find time to play after graduating high school and college. So, I appreciate any time spent playing and hope that one day a lot more young adults like myself, Dan and Andrew, can establish a routine in the late afternoon or evenings or even on weekends to expand the interest of pickleball.
By playing pickleball at the YMCA with this group, I have been able to keep active, even if it’s for an hour or two, have made several friends, and only hope to expand my knowledge of pickleball, improve my skill level, and share the passion with others.
Good luck to everyone playing in the senior games.