STERLING – For as large as Westwood Sports Complex is, it just can’t quite contain the rapid growth of pickleball.
More than a year since the Sterling Park District installed pickleball courts in Westwood’s Building 1, the popularity of the sport has resulted in the construction of a set of outdoor courts at Thomas Park, at Lynn Boulevard and 12th Avenue on the northern edge of town.
The new courts will replace a set of underutilized tennis courts. The park district is resurfacing tennis courts at Westwood, Kilgour and Platt parks, and decided that the pair at Thomas no longer were needed.
Construction started in the fall, but recent rains have slowed the work. It will resume this week and should be done by late June, Executive Director Larry Schuldt said.
“The Thomas courts were in such poor shape,” Schuldt said. “Some people play tennis on them, but they weren’t really very usable. We thought that it would be a good time to convert the two tennis courts into six pickleball courts.”
Each of the six courts will be fenced in, which will make it easier to retrieve long or stray balls.
According to the United States Pickleball Association, there were 6,885 dedicated facilities in 2018, an increase of 1,003 from 2017, and slightly more than 30,000 association members, which is an increase of more than 8,000 in the same span.
“The Sterling Park District has always been wanting to stay ahead of the curve for sports,” said Michael Shears of Rock Falls, a pickleball professional. “They know pickleball is the most growing sport in the United States, and they’re always giving us a lot of support. They’re going to do it the right way, and very professional looking.
“I promise you, [the courts] will be very busy.”
Having widely available outdoor courts also can help bring attention to coaching and lessons offered at Westwood, Schuldt said.
Group and private tennis lessons really have grown, especially with a dedicated facility in Westwood’s Building 2, he added.
Shears knows of about 75 Sauk Valley players, some of whom bring friends from as far as Iowa.
Many players swap tennis racquets for pickleball paddles as they grow older, but Shears also has noticed a jump in the number of younger people coming to Westwood for a session or two. Pickleball is common in high school physical education classes.
“This sport has a stigma of being for old people that don’t play tennis anymore, but we are getting younger people coming out,” Shears said. “It’s been fun, and people from all walks of life all having fun together.”
Two Westwood regulars recently reaped national awards. Paul Biggerstaff, 60, of Woosung and Michael Mekeel, 55, of Galt took third place at the Minto U.S. Open Pickleball Championships on May 1 at East Naples Community Park in East Naples, Florida, in the 3.5 skill level, 55 and older division.
They hope their accomplishments can influence more people to try the sport.
“It continues to be the fastest growing sport in America,” Biggerstaff said. “It’s growing locally at the same pace. Sterling Park District’s done a real good job with recognizing that and giving us a facility.”
Metro areas such as the Quad Cities and Rockford have large, dedicated pickleball groups, and Mekeel believes a local one can be just as popular.
“They just got to show up,” he said. “They’ll be addicted right out of the chute.”
Biggerstaff can’t wait for the Thomas Park courts to open.
“It’ll be one of the nicest pickleball facilities that we travel to.” he said.