WHILE NEW EXTRACURRICULAR options often stir up school spirit, they don’t usually give the whole community a boost. But that’s just what happened in Arizona, when one of the state’s oldest public high schools launched a pickleball club, engaging local companies in the Phoenix metro area and the business world at large—not to mention students, teachers, and staff at the school itself.
In January 2020, Karl Scholes, an English teacher at Gilbert High School and a former attorney, was new to both academics and pickleball. Though he’d played pickleball only a little, he thought the game might have broad appeal, so he asked then sophomore Spencer White, who was on the tennis team, to gauge interest in a new club. “I specifically approached Spencer because I knew he was a 100 percent solid kid who is dependable, kind to others, hardworking, and very personable,” Scholes says.
And White was intrigued. He was familiar with pickleball and thought it a good idea; besides, he says, “Mr. Scholes was my favorite teacher.” White talked with friends, and four members of the tennis team started coming out to play; another 24 classmates soon followed. Scholes picked another student to serve as co-president alongside White, and two others volunteered as secretary and treasurer. With Scholes’s guidance, the fledgling club wrote a charter and waited for the student council to approve their proposal. They were off to a great start—and then the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States and schools were shut down for in-person classes, halting any further brick-and-mortar activity.
Not to be deterred, the group continued to pursue funding for their pet project. They had a place to play—the Gilbert High administration allocated some old basketball courts on which they could tape off the appropriate pickleball lines—but they lacked the equipment necessary to get the ball rolling. Scholes helped the club’s officers draft a sponsor letter, and they contacted businesses both local and farther afield for assistance, explaining the value a pickleball club could bring to the school and the community as a whole.
THE RESPONSE WAS NEAR instantaneous, and overwhelming. Within days the club received 90 paddles, six nets, and 400 balls, plus the promise of three brand-new lighted courts courtesy of SportMaster Sport Surfaces owner Brian Raleigh, who was so happy to see pickleball grow in Gilbert that his company financed the build—an expense of some $12,000. In addition, more businesses and companies, such as Head and Raising Cane’s, offered equipment or contributions for a silent-auction fundraising event possibly slated for fall. “We now have 13 or 14 sponsors,” White says. “Most are pretty small companies, but they’re excited to see the sport grow and want to help in any way they can.”
Pickleball is picking up steam in Gilbert, but White’s not content to stop there. The club’s officers hope to visit nearby schools during the upcoming academic year to inspire them to establish clubs of their own, and they’re pushing for the American Interscholastic Association to recognize pickleball as a viable varsity sport—a goal White hopes to achieve by his senior year. White’s motivated by a love of the game, but he also sees the situation as good practice for his future career. “I plan to major in business and earn an MBA someday,” he says. “Building interest in pickleball at school is not only fun, but also a chance for me to gain experience in working with businesses.”
SO FAR HIS INSTINCTS seem to be on the mark. The pickleball craze has taken over Gilbert High, and the game is proving just as popular with the jocks as with the kids who prefer to bring a sick note to gym class. “It definitely helps if you have some experience playing racket sports, like Ping-Pong and tennis, but you don’t really have to be athletic to play pickleball,” White says, adding that he’s seen non-sporty classmates join the club and have a blast. “It’s something just about anyone can pick up and learn,” he says.
The school’s faculty is also impressed. “Teachers and staff are thrilled,” Scholes says, “because they see the opportunities to help kids build friendships and attain success even if they’ve never played a sport in their entire lives.” At some point pickleball could even prove to be a money-making venture, especially if the district were to charge fees for non-student use after school hours. The future looks bright; as the club’s vision statement puts it, “The lack of pickleball-related activities at the high school level is a thing of the past.”