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Let's Play Pickleball
Kathy Kerst is the heart of the Pickleball community in Sonoma County
At 8 am on a Friday morning, with the fog lingering above Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa, there are 24 people playing on six Pickleball courts. By 8:30 am, as more players arrive, portable nets are moved into place to create two new courts. Some of the players are beginners getting their first lessons, while others are regulars who come out to play three-to-five times a week.
At the heart of all this activity is Kathy Kerst, an indefatigable 75-year old in a red jacket. Usually, Kathy is at Finley by 7:45 am, six days a week, teaching others how to play, helping others who drop-in for a game as well as playing a game herself.
A retired middle school teacher, Kathy and her husband, Ken, moved to Santa Rosa ten years ago from Wisconsin, after a short time living in Virginia. They chose Santa Rosa because their son lived here and they wanted to be near their granddaughters. Kathy learned to play Pickleball in Virginia and she brought a passion for Pickleball with her to Santa Rosa.
She is the official “ambassador” for the North Bay for USA Pickleball, which is a volunteer position. There is a 1,400 member Facebook page run by a volunteer, Carol, and website created by her husband. Both are named Sonoma County Pickleball Club. There are public Pickleball courts in Cloverdale, Healdsburg, Windsor, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Sonoma. There are private courts at the Airport Club and Parkpoint Health Club. The courts in Cotati, Guerneville and Occidental are “taped rather than painted.” In Sebastopol, there are three courts at Brook Haven School but they are used sporadically.
Pickleball was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle. Now, according to Brandon Mackie of Pickleheads.com, it is the fast-growing sport in America. Played with a stiff racquet and a plastic ball that looks like a hard whiffleball, a game of two people per side goes quickly, lasting about 15-20 minutes. Anyone who has played a racquet sport from badminton to tennis will feel comfortable playing. One attraction for seniors is that the court is small, which means you don’t have to run around as much as in tennis.
Photos online shows that Pickleball was being played in Sonoma County in the 70’s but it seems to have grown considerably in Sonoma County over the last ten years. Many attribute the growth to Kathy’s passion for the sport and her advocacy in Santa Rosa to secure use of the courts and raise funds for equipment.
When she first moved here, Kathy found Pickleball courts up in Windsor and started playing there while she lobbied for Pickleball courts in Santa Rosa. Eventually, the City agreed to turn one tennis court at Finley Center into four Pickleball courts. She helped raise $13,000, with Tricia, a Sebastopol resident, who became the team leader for the fundraising that supported the conversion. In 2021, as part of a committee, she helped raise $21,000 for portable nets that could be used to create six more Pickleball courts.
On Wednesday and Friday mornings at 8am, Kathy and others gather at Finley and offer free lessons in Pickleball. You don’t need your own equipment to participate — she has paddles to loan out. You can come as an individual and you’ll be matched up with others.
Kathy says that the oldest player is 90 and a lot of people who play are in their 50’s. A middle school teacher on summer break has been coming with her son, and so has a man who only speaks Spanish. She was glad to see that the teacher’s son spoke enough Spanish to communicate with the older man.
On the Friday I arrived at Finley, Kathy quickly introduced me to some of the players, who all go by their first name. Like Kathy, they are all very friendly and welcoming. Mike has been playing for six years and plays almost every day. He volunteers and plays at the Wine Country Games in June, which had about 200 players. He wore the blue shirt given to competitors at that event. Mike said that Pickleball is the first team sport he has ever played. “A lot of the game is communicating with your partner,” said Mike.
John plays 3-4 times a week. I asked John how many lessons a person needed to play Pickleball and he held up one finger. Earl, a biomed tech, had donated an AED (a portable defibrillator) and it was stolen from the shed. He donated its replacement. “I love this game,” said Earl.
Soon, I had played my first game with Kathy, Jeff and Mike. They all know the rules and coached me on where to stand and how to keep track of the score. Each of them was encouraging. Mike was my partner and he was good at communicating to me whether the shot was mine or his, as well as reminding me not to hit a shot while standing in the forbidden zone called the Kitchen (I did once or twice, by mistake.) Most of the time, I was simply reacting to where the ball was hit and trying to hit it back. I had worked up a sweat by the end of the 15-minute game, even on a foggy morning. I enjoyed meeting the people just as much as playing the game.
Mike said that Kathy has been key to the growth of the Pickleball community in Sonoma County. He explained that as the group’s point of contact with the City of Santa Rosa, she is able to do things that the individual players would not be able to do alone. Kathy also wanted to recognize two other Santa Rosa ambassadors, Reed Ferick and Linda Hoffman. Mike was excited that the Pickleball courts in Howarth Park were closed for much-needed repair.
On most weekdays after her session at Finley, Kathy leaves at 10am for her part-time job at a nearby pre-school. This week, the school was short-staffed, she had to go to work early and missed her regular time on the courts. She and her husband have settled into Sonoma County. In fact, when their son moved to North Carolina a few years ago, Kathy and her husband decided to stay here, largely due to the Pickleball community in which they had played such an important role.
In a future article, we’ll talk to Sebastopol’s former Fire Chief Bill Braga and his wife, Yo, who are avid Pickleball players. Bill says that Kathy Kerst is “awesome.” We’ll look at who’s playing Pickleball in Sebastopol.
If you would like to learn more about playing Pickleball, Kathy said she’d be happy to come to Brook Haven and meet interested players. Drop me an email (email@example.com) or express your interest in the comments below and I’ll reach out to schedule a date.
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