IT’S HARD TO pinpoint the reason for South Jersey Pickleball’s success over the past decade. “I can’t explain it,” says the group’s organizer, Denise Donald. Luck, technology, and the sport’s popularity are probably all contributing factors. But the group’s exponential growth is indisputable, ballooning from nine original players—which included Denise and her husband, John—to a current active membership of approximately 1,400.
South Jersey Pickleball began when Donald and her friends tired of driving 30-plus minutes to Philadelphia, where the nearest pickleball court was located, to play their new favorite sport. Instead, they used masking tape to transform a local tennis court and never looked back.
THE GROUP’S GETTING BIGGER AND BIGGER. AND THE BIGGER IT GETS,THE MORE PEOPLE ARE JUMPING IN TO HELP.
Since then, Donald, now 61, says she and her fellow pickleball aficionados have been instrumental in getting outdoor pickleball courts built or converted in nine New Jersey towns—including Cherry Hill, Hainesport, and Moorestown—as well as indoor courts at venues from roller-skating rinks to gyms. All told, an average week now entails a whopping 123 pickleball meetups at 77 courts—facilitated by the community-building platform Meetup. Members use the site to connect with other pickleballers and sign up for open play, and even free lessons. An annual $10 donation is requested, and balls (and sometimes paddles) are provided if people don’t have their own.
South Jersey Pickleball functions as a conglomerate: Volunteers in the various towns run matches or clinics in whatever manner they prefer. Donald, the operation’s “social butterfly,” keeps tabs on everything, and cites three additional folks for the group’s success: Dave Graham, who frequently tapes and paints lines on new courts; Rose Rowan, who organizes the annual Picklenic get-together; and Estelle “Cookie” Sey, who has taught more than 1,000 New Jerseyans how to play the game.
More often than not, Donald says, it’s the towns that seek her out. “The mayor from Runnemede called me one day,” she recalls. “He said, ‘We’ve got four tennis courts. What do we do to make these into pickleball courts?’” Before long, Runnemede’s six new pickleball courts joined the South Jersey Pickleball rotation.
The group has changed over the years, but South Jersey Pickleball is an ever-expanding entity and now some longer-term members are skilled enough to teach the newer recruits. “The group’s getting bigger and bigger,” Donald says. “And the bigger it gets, the more people are jumping in to help.” Which speaks to South Jersey Pickleball’s greater goals: growing the community and the sport.