By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Al Piano, a 76-year-old retired math teacher, was once a pretty good tennis player, but it got harder and harder for him at his age to run around the court chasing the ball.
He hung up his tennis racket, but he still gets out on the court these days by grabbing his pickleball paddle. Pickleball allows him to stay in shape, but it isn’t nearly as strenuous as tennis.
“Pickleball is much easier. You take a couple of steps and you’re on the ball,” Piano said.
Piano is part of a growing number of pickleball players in Sea Isle. Although Sea Isle built its first permanent pickleball courts on West Jersey Avenue in 2017 in response to community demand, there are only a limited number of spots to play.
But now, the city is exploring the possibility of building even more courts after Piano and other pickleball players urged Sea Isle officials to consider the idea.
“Currently, the city is working on adding pickleball courts in the future,” Sea Isle spokeswoman Katherine Custer said.
Custer noted that Mayor Leonard Desiderio has examined public property throughout the city for possible pickleball sites.
At this point, the likely site appears to be what is currently a parking lot next to Sea Isle’s Municipal Marina on 42nd Place, Custer said. It is known as the “clam shell parking lot” because the surface is made up of crushed, white seashells.
“We are still examining all of our options and we want to be able to provide the services that are needed, including options for our pickleball friends,” Custer said. “We have a lot of residents and property owners who want to maximize their enjoyment in Sea Isle.”
According to Piano, the city is considering building six to eight new pickleball courts at the clam shell parking lot in time for the 2021 summer season.
He said pickleball players like the proposed site, but would want the city to build shields to block the winds blowing off the bay in what is now a wide-open area.
“I think it’s a wonderful location,” said Piano, who serves as a spokesman for the local pickleball players.
Currently, pickleball players are largely limited to the two permanent courts on West Jersey Avenue. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the city sets aside three of the tennis courts at the Dealy Field recreation complex for pickleball. Those tennis courts are also lined for pickleball play.
Piano said the two courts on West Jersey Avenue are heavily used. By his count, an average of 22 players used the two courts every day from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. over the summer.
“We’ve established quite a following here,” said Piano, who has a summer home in Sea Isle and lives in Hatboro, Pa.
Pickleball seemed to be even more popular over the summer during the coronavirus pandemic because there is plenty of room on the courts for social distancing for the players, he pointed out.
However, he also said that some of Sea Isle’s pickleball players have to go to Avalon, Stone Harbor and Ocean City to use the courts there because there can be a long wait for Sea Isle’s courts.
Pickleball combines elements of tennis, ping-pong and badminton. It is played on a 20-foot-wide and 40-foot-long court about the same size as a doubles badminton court. Players use a modified tennis-style net, wooden or graphite paddles and a lightweight, plastic ball.
Less demanding than tennis, pickleball is a relatively low impact sport, which makes it appealing to senior citizens. On Saturday, Piano played with a group of Sea Isle residents who were largely seniors.
“Pickleball seems to satisfy the physical and social activities for senior citizens,” Piano said.
But he added that the courts on West Jersey Avenue also attracted college-age players over the summer and even some children who played pickleball with their grandparents.
“It’s a growing sport overall. It hasn’t hit its peak yet,” he said.