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Flagstaff hosts first ever pickleball tournament over the weekend

ZACH BRADSHAW Special to the Daily Sun (6/20/2022)


Picture this: Warm midday sun shining bright on athletes excitedly rallying balls back and forth on the NAU Aquatic Center outdoor tennis courts. Light breezes from the West creating a cool atmosphere as the blooming, dark-green San Francisco Peaks stand tall in the background. Nearly 200 participants preparing to play their favorite sport in one of the most unique locations in the country.

This was the scene of Friday and Saturday’s Flagstaff Open, the town’s first ever tournament for pickleball.

Pickleball is still largely considered a niche sport, but it’s rapidly catching fire. Best described as a combination of tennis and ping pong, pickleball is played on a small-scale regulation court that is about half the size of a tennis court. The game is played with paddles and a wiffleball, and runs by the same rules of table tennis.

Phoenix is a hotspot for pickleball play, as a massive wave of new players have joined in on the competition. There are many pickleball tournaments in The Valley, but Flagstaff had never seen such an event until this weekend.

CJ Hoyt, who coaches pickleball at both Flagstaff Ranch Golf Club and Forest Highlands Golf Club, organized and directed much of the event, and partnered with the Flagstaff Pickleball Association.

Hoyt hoped for 100 participants, but after 185 signed up and hundreds of other spectators showed, Hoyt knew the tournament was an immediate success.

“I imagine we probably had 300, 400 people who showed up,” Hoyt said. “I was stoked, we had a great turnout. It was inspiring.”

The tournament was a double-elimination event with a winners and losers bracket. It was entirely men’s, women’s, and mixed doubles play, as competitors were placed into categorized events with regards to age and skill level.

The age of competitors ranged from 12 years old all the way up to players in their 70s.

Teamwork and camaraderie were off the charts, as everyone was given high-fives and high praises for their efforts on the court.

One would often hear “Excellent work,” “You go girl,” or “Keep it up” chanted at them as they made their way over to the bleachers.

People all around donned gear that showed their pride in playing the sport: sweatshirts that read “Pickleball is my superpower,” hats with the printed letters “PKLBL,” and bags with the line “Pickleball is fun, let’s play” embroidered on them.

The community of athletes is like no other. It’s competitive and requires heavy strategic planning. But it’s also uplifting and inspiring. The players have each other’s backs, but also aren’t afraid of some friendly-fire.

Suzie Lawler, who is currently ranked 3rd in the state for her age group, laid out her ambitions clearly. “We’re just having fun, but I’m also here to win,” she said.

Patrick Sullivan Jr., a player of over 4 years, said his love for pickleball spawned when he began making numerous friends on the court. He recognizes why so many people signed up for the event, but he also understands what is so attractive about joining a sport with a smaller following.

“Everybody that’s out here wants to compete and wants to win,” Sullivan said. “But at the end of the day, we’re all going to hang out and have some beers and have some laughs. That’s the beauty of it.”

Lori Anna Harrison, who has been playing for about 2 years, wasn’t able to play in the tournament due to injury, but acknowledged the family-like environment of the sport. “Pickleball is a total family. People are welcoming and help you improve yourself,” she said. “Everybody is just friendly and it’s a really awesome community.”

Harrison helped plan the event as well as organize crucial sponsors, which included NAU Tennis, Pita Jungle, Clear Title Agency of Flagstaff, Forest Highlands and Flagstaff Ranch Golf Clubs, La Fonda Restaurant, Oakmont Restaurant, Onix Pickleball Dura Fast, Kristen Smith Academy Mortgage, Gearbox Pickleball, John and Amy Albin, and Arizona Dream Lifestyle Realty.

Jigsaw Health, another sponsor, provided the competitors with packets of “Pickleball Cocktail,” which are designed to be mixed with water to provide players with a much-needed energy boost.

For the competitors, the court is a lifestyle. They understand how games are supposed to ebb and flow, as strategies and gameplans are crucial to winning.

Hoyt, who had played pickleball for over 7 years, said there is a “ying-and-yang” aspect of the game that makes it an intricate, difficult game. “You can go from hitting the most gentle, delicate shot into the kitchen in one second, and in the next second, you’re getting a ball slammed at you as hard as you could imagine, or you’re slamming a ball and blocking it,” Hoyt said. “And then it goes back to that little dink-and-dunk play, and it goes so quickly. That’s the ying-and-yang of it.”

Headlining first place in the all-ages mixed doubles for 4.5-5.0 competitors (the highest ranking) is the duo of Lawler and Sami Rahman. First place in the 4.0-5.0 competition of the all-ages women’s doubles went to Lawler and Neili Wilcox, with Autumn Layden and Jill Thyr being a close second. The gold medal for the men’s 4.0-4.5 all-ages competition went to Sullivan Jr. and Derek Nannen.

Full results of the tournament can be found at pickleballtournaments.com.

The most notable fact of the tournament, however, is the fact that it was the first to ever be played in Flagstaff.

Troy Reynolds, a player of 3 years, described the tournament as “wonderful” because he believes it will mark a new era of pickleball play in the town. “People will see this tournament and want to start playing pickleball,” he said. “It’s so fun and it’s easy. You can volley with your partner or you can play at a competitive level, and that will encourage people to join in the movement.”

The players and event organizers all praise NAU as the university allowed the tournament to take place on their courts.

“The surface is nice and fresh, you get good traction,” Sullivan said as he thanked the university. “The venue looks beautiful, the courts are fantastic.”

Hoyt also praises NAU for its generosity, as he said the tournament couldn’t have happened without it. “The university was just so generous and I cannot thank them enough for helping us put this on.”

Hoyt hopes to schedule another tournament later in the year for wintertime play. He also wishes to make a summer tournament a regularly-planned event.

The success of the tournament is a sign of pickleball growing its roots in the heart of Flagstaff.


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