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Relishing the game: Sterling tournament taps into growing popularity of pickleball

STERLING – Pickleball isn’t just that dilly of a high school P.E. activity anymore.

Combining elements from tennis, ping-pong, and badminton, pickleball's popularity is on the rise, according to Michael Shears of Rock Falls.

He should know. He’s a pickleball pro for the Sterling Park District.

Played with paddles and whiffle balls, what sets pickleball apart from other court sports is that there’s not as much court to cover, as opposed to tennis. Because of that, the game lends itself to players of all ages, and there are fewer injuries than in tennis or badminton.

“As people get older, shoulders and knees flare up,” Shears said. “In tennis, you have to cover much greater area. Pickleball is more condensed, so mobility is not as much of a factor as it is in tennis.”

But while players don’t have to cover as much ground, they do have to keep an eye on things. Eye-hand coordination plays a big role in pickleball.

“It’s a quick game because you’re closer together,” Shears said. “In pickleball, the goal is to come closer to the net."

Shears has organized a tournament for Feb. 23 and 24 in Building 1 at Westwood Fitness and Sports Center, 1900 Westwood Drive.

The tournament is open to full-court singles play and skinny singles play – and no, skinny singles doesn’t mean players have to be on the svelte side; it’s an alternative to full-court play, using half the standard court. Singles play will start at 5 p.m. Friday. Mens and womens doubles play begins at 10 a.m. Saturday, followed by mixed doubles at 1:30 p.m.

There’s a fee to play, but admission is free for spectators who want to stop by and see what all the hoopla’s about.

Shears has seen a growth in pickleball participation locally.

Westwood has hosted pickleball tournaments for the past 3 years, and pickleball has grown to become a important part of the park district’s offerings, according to executive director Larry Schuldt.

Building 1 at Westwood had housed tennis and racquetball for nearly 40 years, but a $1.7 million project that turned Building 2 into the Westwood Tennis Center paved the way for more pickleball space back in Building 1.

“One of the reasons we moved tennis over there is because of the popularity of pickleball,” Schuldt said. “We weren’t having enough courts for both groups.”

Shears gives group lessons Wednesday nights and private lessons Thursday nights at Westwood.

Needing a couple of people for a snap skill lesson during a recent day at Westwood, Spears rounded up a couple of people, gave them paddles, and played a round of doubles.

One of the people who played an impromptu pickelball game was Efren Diaz of Sterling. He said that in just that one quick game, it was easy to see why so many people are having such a ball.

"It was quick, and the bounce was a little different compared to tennis," Diaz said. "It’s something that I would maybe like to do again.”

Shears said he first got hooked a few years back after seeing a modified version of tennis one day; in fact, he ordered his first pickleball paddle on ebay before he drove away from the tennis court. It reminded him of a P.E. activity from his high school days in Yorkville.

“It continues to grow,” Shears said. “People love the tournaments, and they love this facility. We’re going to have a really good time here.”


The tournament

Sterling Park District's third annual Winter Pickleball Classic

Building 1 at Westwood Fitness and Sports Center

Feb. 23: Pickleball clinic with Kasandra Gehrke, 3 p.m.; Singles and skinny singles, 5 p.m.

Feb. 24: Men's and women's doubles, 8 a.m.; mixed doubles, 1:30 p.m.

Go to to register and for more information

The game

Call Westwood at 815-622-6201 for more information on the pickleball courts

Go to, find Sterling Park District on Facebook or contact the district at 815-622-6200 for more on its pickleball offerings.

Go to for more information on the sport, including its history.


Unless someone has packed one in their lunch, there’s nary a pickle to be found in a pickleball kitchen (the non-volley zone), or any other part of the court. So why the food-inspired name? Well, according to the USA Pickleball Association:

Accounts of how the name originated differ. According to Joan Pritchard, wife of Joel Pritchard, one of the game’s creators, she started calling the game pickleball because “the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat … where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.” But according to Barney McCallum (another of the game’s creators), the game was officially named after the Prichards’ dog Pickles, who would chase the ball and run off with it. According to McCallum, “The Pritchards had a dog named Pickles, and you’re having fun at a party, right? So anyway, what the hell, let’s just call it pickleball.”

Others claim both accounts may actually be true. In the early years, no official name was assigned to the game. However a year or 2 after the game was invented, the Pritchards purchased a cocker spaniel and named it Pickles. As the game progressed, an official name was needed and “pickleball” was it.

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