For both Marianna Richards and Phil Hendershott, all it took was one taste to get hooked — and now both of them come to downtown Franklin every day to indulge in their vice of choice.
They’re not alone.
Beginning at about 8 a.m. every day, residents of all ages start converging upon Youngs Creek Park in search of that much-needed high. The drug of choice? Pickleball.
If the name sounds silly to you, you’re not the only one. Phil Hendershott scoffed at first when he first learned about the sport from friends who’d picked it up after retiring to Florida.
“They came back after a couple of years and they said, ‘You need to play this game I found down there called pickleball,’” Hendershott recalled. “I said, ‘Pickleball?!? That sounds stupid. I’m not playing that.’ But then they got me out, and it took a couple of times for me to get hooked.”
Now, Hendershott is a regular on the local courts and playing at a pretty competitive level despite being in his late 60s.
Such is the beauty of pickleball, which shares a lot of common ground with tennis but has enough differences to make it appealing to older people whose bodies don’t necessarily respond as well anymore to heavy wear and tear.
Pickleball courts are considerably smaller than tennis courts — 44 feet by 20 feet — and employ harder, thicker paddles along with a hollow plastic ball that’s quite similar to a Wiffle ball. There’s also a no-volley zone, known as the “kitchen,” that extends 7 feet from the net on either side and prevents physically superior players from living off of close-range smashes.
Troy Wright, another regular at the Franklin courts who started playing about three years ago and now serves as a district ambassador for USA Pickleball, says that the ball is often the biggest adjustment for new players, especially those with a background in tennis.
“A tennis player will come in and they’ll just miss,” he said, “because the ball doesn’t come off the ground like a tennis ball.”
When it comes to attracting new players, pickleball generally doesn’t miss.
The Youngs Creek Park courts, which were installed last year, are routinely full throughout the day. Many of the players during the 9-to-5 stretch are older retirees, with younger players in their 20s and 30s arriving in greater numbers during the evening. The “Franklin Indiana Pickleball Club” Facebook page has more than 800 members.
And pickleball’s viral spread isn’t limited to downtown Franklin. Craig Park in Greenwood now has seven courts, while the soon-to-be-opened Kephart Park in Bargersville will have eight. Several tennis courts around Johnson County, such as those in Bargersville’s Somerset neighborhood, have recently been re-lined so that pickleball can be played on either half with a portable net.
Those smaller court dimensions allow people in their 60s and 70s to remain competitive with people half their age.
Marianna Richards plays regularly in Franklin, where four of the eight courts are generally for competitive players of an intermediate level or greater and the other four are for more casual or social play. Richards, who looks nowhere near her 71 years, can almost always be found on the higher-level courts.
“It’s something that you can walk into and play somewhat competitively right from the get-go,” said Richards, who also picked up the sport from Florida-retiree friends. “You can improve quickly, and there’s just always a better shot or another strategy you can learn.”
Celeste Hook, a Franklin native who has been active in the sport for about six or seven years, was among those who lobbied hard for the city’s parks and recreation department to add courts to the park when the DriveHubler.com Amphitheater, playground and splash pad were going in.
She believed it would be a long-term benefit for the community, and she’s been proven correct. Wright and Hook have organized a tournament that will be played on the courts later this month (April 28-30), and 166 players, both from the area and from well beyond, signed up.
Wright estimates that Franklin Parks and Recreation will end up making about $10,000 off of the tourney between entry fees and sponsors; he and Hook offered to organize the event for free as a way to pay the city back for putting the courts in.
“We just want to give our time back to the community,” Hook said, “and make people love the game like we love the game.”
AROUND THE WORLD
Dean Matt and Shannon Yeager, a pair of Florida-based pilots and pickleball enthusiasts, are attempting to get into the Guinness Book of World Records by playing matches in all 48 contiguous states over a 26-day period. Their record quest will bring them to Franklin on May 18, where they will play at Youngs Creek Park at 5 p.m.
The public is invited to come out and watch.