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Weekend pickleball tournament in Peconic raises more than $7K for North Fork Animal Welfare League

There have been nicer Wednesdays. The sky was gray, with rays of sun only occasionally poking through, and puddles lined the concrete of Tasker Park pavilion in Peconic. The Klise family was on the pickleball court anyway.

“Hey, do either of you know the rules?” Andy Klise shouted. The North Carolina native, visiting relatives in the area, was playing with his sister from Brooklyn and his parents from Ohio. As a tennis player, he had an idea of what to do. His mother, Gail, on the other hand, hadn’t picked up a racket since high school.

Nick Cordone is probably the best person the family could have run into. It would have been hard to miss him, striding down the field at Tasker Park in a shirt with the USA Pickleball logo on it and a pickleball paddle in hand. He wore a baseball hat that read “Just Dink It,” referring to a type of pickleball finesse shot. He looked like an authority on the sport and he is. In fact, he’s the reason there’s a pickleball court at Tasker Park at all.

Pickleball is a cross between tennis, badminton and ping pong, played with composite paddles and a wiffle ball. Games are quick, only about 10 or 15 minutes each, and easy to learn. It can be played in doubles or singles, with players hitting the ball back and forth. The first team to reach 11, in the lead by 2, wins.

Nearly 10 years ago, the sport was virtually unknown in Southold. There were no courts back then, and the town recreation department didn’t offer pickleball classes until Mr. Cordone convinced the town to let him teach a few. 

He applied for a USA Pickleball ambassadorship to Southold after learning to play while on vacation in Florida. “That’s when I approached the town, me and a few others, and had our very first meeting concerning pickleball, which no one had ever heard of. No one played it here yet; it just didn’t exist,” he said. 

In Mr. Cordone’s words, it was a tsunami from there. The pickleball craze that seized America has swept the North Fork too. The fastest-growing sport in the country, the paddle game’s popularity has exploded in Southold over the past decade.

Nick Cordone is a USA Pickleball Association ambassador to Southold. He helped introduce the sport to the town. (Credit: Brianne Ledda)

Now there are six pickleball courts at Tasker Park and the town plans to add three more to meet demand. More than 300 people are members of the Southold Pickleball Facebook group and a Saturday tournament with 80 players and over 100 attendees raised more than $7,000 for North Fork Animal Welfare League, a nonprofit that runs Southold and Riverhead animal shelters.

“This weekend every single court was taken,” Mr. Cordone said, referring to the weekend before the tournament. “That’s 24 people out there, as well as the same amount of people waiting to play. So this place was just packed with people, as it has been this entire year. Now with the new courts coming, it should make a difference, but the way that it’s growing, they probably could use more courts.” 

Pickleball has dominated national headlines this year, as people start to take notice of a sport that has steadily risen in popularity. A February report from The Sports & Fitness Industry Association found the number of players has grown 39.3% over the last two years, with more than 4.8 million participants nationwide. 

“It is almost a cliché at this point that the pandemic did not so much create trends as much as accelerate them. Pickleball has grown in popularity for the past five years and did not miss a beat during the pandemic. Pickleball’s growth trajectory gives every indication it will be a significant part of the American sport landscape for the foreseeable future,” Tom Cove, president and CEO of the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, said in a statement with the report.

There are plenty of reasons people have gravitated toward the game — it’s a healthy workout that’s easier on the body than tennis and many other sports, for instance, leading to popularity among older generations. It also generates a sense of community, and as the sport has gained popularity, it has gained profitability through tournaments and advertising.

The Klise family, visiting relatives on the North Fork, turned out to play pickleball together at Tasker Park in Peconic last Wednesday. 

Local enthusiast Steve Starroff emphasized the sense of community generated by the game. “It’s also very friendly. We’re competitive when we’re playing but it’s never aggressive. When you’re done playing you usually get off the courts so other people can get on and you sit there and you’re yakking between games with other people. So the social aspect is as important, I think, as the competitive sports participation.”

The sport has been around since 1965, when it was invented by three dads near Seattle trying to entertain their kids using handmade equipment and a tennis court. There are a few myths about how the game was named — one of the more popular stories alleges it was inspired by a family dog, Pickles, who chased rogue balls. 

Mr. Cordone said, however, that Pickles was born three years after the sport was invented. “The name pickleball stems from the fact that these three men were scull rowers. And when you have a boat that is mixed of male and female rowers it’s called a pickle,” he said. 

The USA Pickleball Association, which took the time to fact-check the story, agrees. But no matter how it was named, the sport has grown into a sport with international reach and Olympic aspirations. 

Mr. Starroff, who helped organize Saturday’s tournament, said he fell into the sport strictly by accident. Looking for a way to stay active when he retired, he took the town class on pickleball for beginners. He liked it, so he continued on to intermediate.

“And then I’m like, ‘You know, this is pretty cool. How can I get other people to play?’ ” he said. “A lot of people were just starting to pick it up out here two, three years ago. So I started the Facebook page, just saying, ‘Hey, anybody interested in playing, you know, join the Facebook page.’ When I took the class, I encouraged them to do it so that we could get together. And, you know, it just kind of mushroomed somewhat from there.”

The group, organized just before the outbreak of COVID-19, was able to play on the outdoor courts through the pandemic and the sport continued to pick up steam. Town classes fill up almost immediately. A tournament was held a few years ago, just before COVID-19, to honor a player who passed away, and another was held in the spring to benefit Southold Historical Museum. 

“The popularity, the camaraderie and the sportsmanship of it, I think is really what makes pickleball the sport that it is for everybody,” Mr. Starroff said. 

Nancy Rickles, who is married to Mr. Starroff and on the board for NFAWL, said Saturday’s tournament brought in critical funds for food, medicine and other supplies to care for animals in the no-kill shelters. 

“This community is such an amazing group of animal lovers, so combine that with all the pickleball lovers — I think it’s just a winning combo,” she said.

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