Hamlet, North Carolina: Richmond County elders still bringing the heat, looking to grow pickleball numbers

[yourdailyjournal.com – Leon Hargrove, Jr.] — HAMLET — They may not be as young as they once were, but the ever-nimble Richmond County elders who play pickleball twice a week inside the gymnasium at Hamlet Memorial Park can still bring the heat.

Underhand serves, backhand returns, forehands, volleys — it doesn’t matter. They can do it all.

“It’s a good sport for really anybody in any age group, but generally for people who’ve become less ambulatory,” said Joey Jernigan, a 62-year-old regular at the weekly game sessions. “Something like tennis may be a little too much, so this is where they can play if they still want to get exercise.”

Early Tuesday afternoon, Jernigan was one of six to meet up in Hamlet for another day of competition. He teamed up with Dathan Bodie, 51, in the latter part of the session to take on Keith Sinclair, 70, and Ronnie Williamson, 79.

Sinclair and Williamson ultimately came out on top in that matchup, after building a pretty comfortable lead in the game’s early going, but the group — although competitive — says it doesn’t put much emphasis on the wins and the losses.

The relationships that have been built through the sport is what truly matters at the end of the day.

“It’s good fellowship,” Williamson said.

Pickleball, invented in 1965, is a sport that resembles the likes of badminton, tennis and table tennis. Players use a paddle made of wood to hit a ball — very similar to a wiffle ball, but smaller — back-and-forth over the net.

The game was introduced to Richmond County by Mike Deese and Gene Stewart, who had no clue what it was until they made the trip to Raleigh for the North Carolina Senior Games (they were playing tennis at the time) in 2013.

Deese and Stewart did their research once they returned and started to look for places to play. Six years later, thanks to Hamlet Parks & Recreation director Maurice McLaurin, the park is a place they can call home for now.

“It’s a fun game and it’s just a blessing that they’ve got this facility to let us play in,” Williamson added.

Games go up to 11 points — must win by two — and can be played in singles or doubles. Serves must be made underhanded and they have clear the non-volley zone in front of the net that’s also known as “the kitchen.”

Servers must have both feet behind the line when serving and must hit the ball in the air (without it bouncing) diagonally cross court. Teams can only score a point when it’s their serve.

“It’s kind of like ping pong, just on a big court,” said Bogen Berry, 67. “It’ll make you sweat, though. I’ll tell you that.”

There are around eight regulars who come to play every Tuesday (at 1 p.m.) and Thursday (at 8 a.m.) but the group is looking to increase its numbers — preferably to a dozen players. Sinclair says the game is rather inexpensive, with a good racket costing around $50, and encourages people to come out to try the rapidly-growing game.

Two years ago, there were 250 people signed up to play pickleball in the Senior State Games. In 2018, over 500 people showed up to compete. Jimmy Moore, 78, was one of them, saying he didn’t play well but he had lots of fun.

And he thinks the game can be enjoyable for others in the area as well.

“We’re looking for more players. They don’t have to be senior citizens. They can be younger, like 45-50,” he said with a laugh. “We’ve got plenty of rackets to go around if anybody wants to try and see if they like it. All you need is tennis shoes.”

By Leon Hargrove Jr.

Sports Editor

Reach sports editor Leon Hargrove Jr. by phone at 910-817-2673 or by email at lhargrove@yourdailyjournal.com. For stories, scores and updates, follow the Daily Journal’s sports section on Twitter @RCDailySports.

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