Pickleball comes to the Bitterroot

Fairgrounds First Interstate Center houses new courts.  The country’s fastest-growing sport has come to the Bitterroot Valley.
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Ann Bailey-Wolff reaches out to give the pickleball a whack while her husband, Ed, backs her up. The couple were two of about 20 people who turned out to play pickleball at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds First Interstate Center Tuesday.

Ed Wolff plays the pickleball in close as his wife, Ann, looks on during the Tuesday morning pickleball session at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds First Interstate Center.

  • Perry Backus

At the end of the every match, pickleball players bump the ends of their rackets together. Pickleball is now being offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the First Interstate Center on the Ravalli County Fairgrounds.

  • Perry Backus

Pickleball, one of the fastest growing sports in the country, has come to the Bitterroot. Players are now playing on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds First Interstate Center.

  • Perry Backus

The country’s fastest-growing sport has come to the Bitterroot Valley.

On Tuesday morning, the Ravalli County Fairgrounds First Interstate Center was teeming with pickleball partners on the five new courts that opened to the public two weeks ago, just in time to celebrate National Pickleball Month in April.

Pickleball?

You say you’ve never heard of it.

If you’re looking for a way to get some exercise and have some fun with a bunch of active folk, it may be time you picked up a paddle and gave the wiffle ball a whack over the net.

“It’s really easy to learn how to play,” said Bitterroot Pickleball organizer Rick Trauth. “It doesn’t take people long before they really start to have fun with it. There are lots of different skill levels. Lots of retired people like to play. It’s a great way to meet new people.”

The sport traces its roots back to 1965. The story goes that three fathers returned home from a round of golf on Bainbridge Island, Washington state, to find their families bored. They attempted to set up a badminton net, but no could find the shuttlecock.

So they improvised with a wiffle ball, a lowered net and some fabricated plywood paddles.

The result was game that combines the skills and rules of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. Today’s game is played on a badminton-size court with a modified tennis net, a plastic ball with holes and a solid paddle about the size used in racquetball.

Pickleball can be played both indoors and out. And it doesn’t cost an arm and leg to get started.

Trauth of Stevensville has taken a lead role in spreading the sport across the Bitterroot.

Last fall — with permission from the town of Stevensville — he set up three courts at the Lewis and Clark Park in that community and hosted clinics. It didn’t take long for the word to spread that this was a good way to have fun.

This spring, those courts will be resurfaced with funding that Trauth acquired through a grant.

Once the snow flew, pickleball in the Bitterroot almost disappeared other than a small court in Victor.

Ravalli County Fairgrounds Manager Melissa Saville said she was contacted by one of Hamilton’s athletic clubs about the potential of using the First Interstate Center for the sport.

“They told me that they had quite a few people asking about the possibility of using their tennis courts for pickleball,” Saville said. “They didn’t want to do that. And then I got a phone call from (Commissioner) Jeff Burrows. He said he knew some people who were looking for a place to play.”

One thing led to another and before long pickleballs were flying in the expansive indoor facility.

Two weeks ago, Trauth and others with the Bitterroot Pickleball organization had their courts taped out and portable nets set up ready for play on Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to 3 p.m., and 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The cost to play a session is $5. People can also purchase a $40 punch card for 10 sessions, or 20 sessions for $60.

“It has worked out really well,” Saville said. “Everyone seems to be having a really good time. They are all good sports. We haven’t seen any sore losers.”

Even some of the people who have taken advantage of the facility to get out and walk through the winter months have joined in and learned how to play the game.

“Everyone can play pickleball,” Saville said.

Trauth has been encouraged by the growing numbers of people who have walked through the doors ready to try something new.

“I’m tickled that the courts are already pretty full,” he said. “We really haven’t even promoted it all. Most of this is happening by word of mouth.”

The Bitterroot Pickleball organization also offers lessons. One of its members, Ray McNeal of Hamilton, is currently in Seattle going through a certification process.

“It doesn’t really cost much to get it up and going,” Trauth said. “You have to buy a portable net. The balls are like $3 and rackets cost between $30 to $150. We have rackets here that people can use if they want to give it a try.”

Bitterroot Pickleball has rented the facility through to the end of December.

“Having this space open in the summer is going to be great,” Trauth said. “People will be able to get out from under the hot sun or avoid the wind and rain. The surface in this building is great, too.

“We’re really lucky to have this here,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that we now have one of the largest indoor pickleball courts in the state. …This is culmination of people wanting to play pickleball and not having a place to do that.”

In between games Tuesday morning, Ann Bailey-Wolff of Stevensville said she started playing the game last fall when the courts opened at Lewis and Clark Park. It didn’t take long for her and her husband, Ed Wolff, to become avid fans.

“It’s just fun,” she said. “I like a little competition. You get to be around a nice group of people who aren’t out to try to kill you. You just get to have fun and some exercise.”

For more information, people can call or text Trauth at 239-8648.2