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Local players have affinity for pickleball
Buddy Holder (left) awaits a high-angle shot struck by his wife, Donna, during a May 23 pickleball match in Springfield. Craig Owens (right) waits to get in on the rally. Pickleball, which combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong, is played with a paddle and plastic ball. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff
Older people -- older people like I am -- can do it. It gets a spark in you.
Mary Lou Spake

SPRINGFIELD — Thoughts of pickleball bounce around in Buddy Holder’s head regularly. He plays the fun, social and friendly game — a combination of tennis, badminton and ping-pong — every chance he gets.

“I love it,” he said multiple times during a May 26 discussion about America’s fastest-growing sport. 

Holder plays pickleball with his wife, Donna, and several of their friends on City of Springfield-owned tennis courts on Franklin Street. They typically get together three times a week.

“We played three hours last night,” Holder said. “We stayed as long as we could.”

Played with a paddle and and plastic ball, pickleball is easy for beginners to learn. It can develop into a quick, fast-paced game that is challenging, however.

“It’s the number one sport in America, especially with the seniors,” Effingham County Recreation Department Director Clarence Morgan said. 

Pickleball is hardly a new sensation. It was invented in 1965.

“I taught it to all my middle-school kids in a PE class in the ’80s and ’90s,” Morgan, a former Effingham County School District educator and coach, said. “It can be a fast-paced game or a slow-paced game — whatever route you want to go.”

Holder, a former football coach who works in the Effingham County School District’s Safety & Risk Management Department, was introduced to the sport by his wife. She played with her coworkers at the end of each day on a chalk-lined court in the Effingham County High School courtyard. Donna Holder is an art teacher at the school.

“Back in the fall of 2019, it was me, nurse (Mary Lou) Spake, (media specialist) Rhonda (Shearouse) and her daughter, Annah,” Donna said. “In the spring (of 2020), Annah had to leave us because she had a lot of FFA stuff to do — she is an agriculture teacher — so we pulled Buddy out there. He quickly became an addict.”

The new player’s ability to satisfy his pickleball craving was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic a few months later so he built a court in the family driveway in Clyo.

“During the ‘coronacation’ (the government-mandated school closure), all we did is play pickleball,” Donna said.

The Holders were frequently joined on their home court by neighboring family members.

“People would sit out there with lawn chairs and we would play until it was flat dark to where you couldn’t even see the ball anymore,” Buddy said.

One of pickleball’s attractions is its simplicity. It is played on a badminton-sized court (20 feet by 44 feet). The ball is served diagonally (starting with the right-hand service-square), and points can only be scored by the side that serves.

Players on each side must let the ball bounce once before volleys are allowed, and there is a seven-foot no-volley zone on each side of the net to prevent “spiking.” The server continues to serve, alternating courts, until he or she faults. The first side scoring 11 points and leading by at least two points wins.

Serves should always be done underhand with the paddle below the waist, and the server must keep both feet behind the back line when serving. The ball should be hit into the air without being bounced. The serving side will continue to serve until the there is a fault on the service, at which point the service will be given to the opposing side. (However, if the ball touches the net but still lands within the appropriate service court, the serve may be taken over.)

“What I like about it is that it is very similar to tennis. I used to play tennis growing up,” Spake, 62, said. “Older people — older people like I am — can do it. It gets a spark in you.

“If you lose, you always want to play one more time.”

The Holders’ competitive spark has developed into a raging five-alarm fire.

“When we first started, we were not very good,” Donna said. “We’ve gotten better, especially since we’ve gotten more people out here, which has been fun.”

Having multiple players available allows for breaks and a variety of teams.

“We try to rotate so you don’t play with the same person over and over,” Donna said.

The Holders, who, along with their friends, obtained permission from the Springfield City Council to paint pickleball lines on the Springfield tennis courts, have become solid teammates. They participated in an annual tournament as a tandem in Beaufort, S.C., winning one of four matches. 

“We’re average,” Buddy, a former Georgia Southern baseball player, said humbly.

Spake played in the tournament, too. It was loaded with professional players, including a pair that defeated the Holders handily in their last match.

Buddy thinks they might fare better if they try it again, however.

“There are days that Buddy and I play extremely well together and then there are some days that we don’t,” Donna said. “In my view (when things don’t go well), he is the problem. In his view, it’s me.”

Anticipating more interest in pickleball, Morgan said he is requesting that courts be added to the county’s recreation complex that bears his name in Springfield.

“Hopefully, that will be in the next phase (of construction), and I’m hoping in the next two or three months we will lay out some portable courts at either the new gym or one of our gyms to play some,” he said.

Morgan expects county pickleball leagues to develop.

“Oh, it’s big,” he said. “You see pickleball on TV. You see national tournaments going on.

“It’s gotten real big in the senior community and it is just branching out.”