By Jeff Nations
EDINBURG -- Alejandro Alegre has the confident air of a player who knows his way around a pickleball court.
Alegre, from Harrisonburg, showed off all the shots during a recent pickleball session at the Charterhouse School-Edinburg -- forehand smash, a solid backhand, a slice, and of course the required underhand serve.
It's hard to believe that Alegre and his equally accomplished pickleball-playing parents, Carlos Alegre and Isabel Pigrau, have only been playing the sport for four or five months now.
"We heard about it through our tennis group, and we looked it up online and it seemed fun, pretty much like tennis," Alegre said. "It's just a racket sport and we love racket sports, so we just started playing pickleball and got into it. We started in Harrisonburg, then we heard about Edinburg. We play both, then we heard about Fishersville and Charlottesville so we play those as well. We play about four times a week."
The Harrisonburg family is the exception, not the rule, for the group that plays twice weekly on the indoor court in Edinburg. Sponsored by the Shenandoah County Parks and Recreation Department, the indoor sessions at the school (there's also a group that plays in New Market) attracts between eight to 10 players on most Sundays and anywhere from eight to 22 during the Monday night sessions.
"Anybody can play," Woodstock's Karenina Baker said. "It's not necessarily for a certain age or male or female. Kids can play, and it's really neat to see the different age groups coming together. Usually you watch the kids play their sports and the adults play theirs, so this is a good way to mix it up a little bit."
Tom Constable brought pickleball to Shenandoah County about three years ago, after discovering the fast-growing sport on vacation at an RV resort in Fort Myers, Fla. Since then, Constable has been the game's biggest advocate in Shenandoah County and has seen outdoor pickleball courts established in New Market, Edinburg, Toms Brook, Mount Jackson, Maurertown and Bayse, with more planned soon for Woodstock.
"The court is 44 feet by 20 feet, so it fits well into a tennis court," said Constable, who holds the designation as Pickleball Ambassador for Shenandoah and Rockingham counties. "The net is 34 inches versus 36 inches for tennis, so you just lower the net."
The game is similar to tennis with in the serve and volley aspect, but the pacing is more akin to badminton and the racket resembles an oversized ping-pong paddle. The ball most closely matches a wiffle ball.
"It's easier to just pick up and play," Alejandro Alegre said. "You don't really need to build an entire court. A tennis court has to be built into the ground. We pickleball, you can just tape [the net] and go."
The indoor sessions at Edinburg are a relatively new development that started this winter with plans to continue twice-a-week gatherings on into the first week of May. There is a $2 fee to play indoors, but new players are welcome to drop in. No experience is necessary, and equipment is provided by the group.
"It's pretty easy to pick up," Alejandro Alegre said. "It's the fastest growing sport in the nation for a reason. It's easy to play and easy to pick up, and there's all kinds of levels."
Constable said the game, which does appeal to seniors, is popular with all age groups once they've been exposed to it. The group at Edinburg on Monday night bore out that assessment, with players ranging from pre-teens to seniors sharing the courts for fast-paced doubles matches.
"With all the seniors we have retired here in the Shenandoah Valley, I really expected a bigger turnout from them," Constable said. "When you mention pickleball, 90 to 95 percent of the people say, 'What's that?' Until they get a chance to see it or experience playing it, it's hard to get people to come out."
The Shenandoah County group could benefit from added exposure in the coming weeks it transitions to the outdoor season in Edinburg. Those sessions are also open to newcomers and there's no charge to play.
The group is welcoming to new players, and Constable said the basics of the game could be learned in as quickly as 15 minutes.
"A couple of us have actually bought paddles and are ready to play on our own," Baker said. "A couple of them go to tournaments on weekends to play. But we're all definitely novice players."
For more information on playing pickleball in the county, contact the Shenandoah County Parks and Recreation Department at 540-459-6777 or visit the website at www.scpr.info.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>