Capital Region has some of nation’s top pickleball players

Pickleball has similarities to badminton, tennis and ping-pong.
Niskayuna's Peter Briscoe returns a volley while playing pickleball recently in Scotia.
Niskayuna's Peter Briscoe returns a volley while playing pickleball recently in Scotia.

Whap! Whap! Whap!

The sound was constant at the small room at the City View Church, where several players were practicing pickleball, a racquet sport with similarities to badminton, tennis and ping-pong. As time progressed, the players’ cozy makeshift gymnasium took on the light smell of sweat, a byproduct of the day’s outside heat and hours of continued play.

It’s a humble location that belies the presence of some of the region’s and country’s most successful pickleball players at the senior level. Of the 40-plus players who currently rotate through playing sessions at the venue, at least seven are heading to play in the National Senior Games Association’s pickleball tournament at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Minnesota that start Friday.

Capital Region players started meeting at the City View Church about a decade ago for invitation-only sessions, looking for a way to improve at the sport that started in the western United States in the 1960s. Nearly all the players — most of whom are in their 50s and 60s — who meet at the church came to pickleball through some bit of happenstance rather than deliberation, taking to the sport after tennis careers ended or a fluke occurrence resulted in them giving pickleball a shot.

Like Ballston Lake’s Cheryl Silverman, 60, who took up the game five years ago with her husband Larry, 60, after hearing about it at a party from a limping neighbor who had just come from playing. After dabbling with the game while still working — she in the Troy school district, he at Shenendehowa — they hooked themselves on the game when retirement set in.

“It’s addictive,” Cheryl Silverman said.

“The learning curve is very short, but once you get into it, you realize there’s a lot more to it, which makes it fun,” Larry Silverman said. “As you get better at it, you realize it’s more like playing ping-pong and you’re standing on the table. That’s how you have to look at it.”

After some strong performances at tournaments, the Silvermans joined the games at the City View Church as substitute players.

“Once you prove you can hang, you get to become a regular,” Cheryl Silverman said.

“We wanted a place for advanced players to show up — and play at our level,” said Niskayuna’s Peter Briscoe, a 71-year-old player with several state tournament wins to his name who helps area players drill and improve.

Glenville’s Ray Raphael, 75, is another area teacher of the game. He won a national title in 2013 playing doubles, but now focuses his efforts on putting players through workouts at a variety of locations. He uses lessons from his successes to help teach local players how to handle out-of-state competitors, athletes who often have more experience than local ones.

“They used to play us, chew us up, and spit us out,” Cheryl Silverman said.

But Capital Region players have progressed during the past decade to emerge as one of the top competing conglomerates in the growing game. Everywhere local players compete, medals are won; at June’s state Senior Games, athletes competed across six age division in men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles, and mixed doubles, with Capital Region competitors taking medals in nearly every category.

Such success is sustained, not sporadic. To name only a few top players, Clifton Park’s Roland Calingasan wins medals nearly everywhere he goes throughout the country; Niskayuna’s Dave Denofio regularly takes first place at state and national tournaments; and Larry and Cheryl Silverman routinely win or place at competitions throughout the Northeast.

More medals are expected at the national Senior Games, even though several players are not able to make the trip to Minnesota despite qualifying. Niskayuna’s Boris Gisin and Julia Gisin are amongst that favored group; the duo won a silver medal in mixed doubles at the state Senior Games, while Julia Gisin won a gold in women’s doubles and Boris Gisin won a silver in men’s doubles — the latter with another area player, Niskayuna’s Peter Bojarczuk.

Unlike many of the area’s top senior players, the Gisins — Boris is 55, Julia is 52 — are not yet retired and only get to play in a few tournaments each year.

“If it fits in our schedule, we play,” Julia Gisin said.

That type of commitment is typical amongst top players like the ones who frequent the City View Church for games several times a week. Pickleball is a game that emphasizes strategy and deft touch, not strength and speed, a dichotomy that rewards players who spend hours in small gyms like the one at City View Church working on their craft.

“There are a lot of people who only play pickleball casually,” Larry Silverman said, laughing.

“We just don’t hang out with them.”

Categories: Sports

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