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UVa Pickleball Club wins national championship and $15K in Atlanta

Competitive 10-day tryouts, a hundreds-strong team, cross-country travel, cash prizes of $50,000 — you’d be forgiven for assuming this was a story about a professional sports team.

But no, this is about club pickleball at the University of Virginia.

What the Sports & Fitness Industry Association has called the fastest growing sport in the country, pickleball has exploded on Grounds at UVa. What was a team of only five three years ago has grown to 200 players this fall.

Success in recruitment has translated to success on the court.

The club’s tournament team was victorious last month at the three-day Dynamic Universal Pickleball Rating Collegiate National Championship down in Atlanta. Players said the Nov. 19 finals victory over the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was almost as sweet as the $15,000 prize that came along with it.

“I remember, before the tournament, our goal was to make the semifinals, and even that was a stretch,” Eli Mautner, a member of the five-person squad that competed in Atlanta, told The Daily Progress.

UVa entered the tournament as fifth seed after its performance this past spring.

Mautner, a third-year student at UVa, said the $15,000 prize didn’t seem attainable at first.

“I could have never imagined it,” said Mautner. “Now I can justify all those hours playing, but I still would’ve played with no money involved.”

The players who won the championship divided 50% of the money among themselves. The other half was deposited into the club’s account to help pay for future competitions.

Mautner was first introduced to the sport through a one credit kinesiology course he took his first year. Afterwards, he began to join in pickup games with some friends from his dormitory. Mautner, who said he remembers when games at UVa attracted only 10 or so players, attributes the rapid growth of the club to the sport’s accessibility.

“You can get anything you want from it,” he said. “It can be a break from studying, time to hang with friends, or you can take it super seriously. Either way, there’s a place for you. There’s always room to get better, so it’s addictive in that way.”

The club’s executives, led by president Conor Burns, has created two teams to handle the magnitude of interest. There is a tournament team of 24 members that travels to compete in events and a social team of 75 members that will likely triple in size by next spring. For those who did not make either one of those rosters, hundreds are still welcome to come out to the courts near Central Grounds for two hours every Friday afternoon.

Unlike other student groups at the university, pickleball membership is not restricted. Any UVa student, from first-years to members of the graduate and medical schools, can join so long as they are currently taking a minimum of six credit hours.

“This involves a lot of the student body on Grounds and is a really good way for both undergrads and graduate students, which is so different from anything else, to interact, because they are playing on the same team,” Burns told The Daily Progress. “We have an 18-year-old and 30-year-old playing together on the same team.”

Born on the courts of the Snyder Tennis Center back in late October of 2020, amid a pandemic and social distancing and the absence of most extracurriculars on campus, the UVa Pickleball Club boasted a total five members.

Burns, a former high school tennis player, transferred to UVa from Northeastern University in the fall of 2022 and became intrigued by pickleball when he came across it at a club fair. When he joined that fall, membership had only grown to roughly 40 people, and those were only playing pickup games.

This fall, with interest skyrocketing, the club said it was forced to cap tryouts at 400 people.

“We probably would have had double the interest, but we just couldn’t handle that,” said Burns.

The team has no plans to slow down in the upcoming spring semester, said Burns.

A handful of players will be sent to participate in the Association of Pickleball Players’ inaugural U.S. Collegiate Championships and Midwest Open taking place in Westfield, Indiana. Players there will be competing for $50,000 in scholarship money and a spot in the national broadcast on CBS Sports.

Major brands may be to thank for turning a sport that was once unheard-of into such a force.

“Companies who are trying to make a name for themselves or trying to rebrand themselves as a ‘pickleball company’ are trying to get ahead of this new trend in sport that’s going to be massive,” said Burns, who has been paying attention to tournament sponsors. Association of Pickleball Players’ season-long sponsors include State Farm and Humana insurance, Skechers, AARP and Vlasic Pickles, among others.

Burns sees the sport becoming incorporated into the official realm of college athletics in the near future.

“The way we are having to run the club at this point is moving away from the club level and feels more like a DI athletic program,” he said.

For now, the club is determined to make sure no one loses sight of the original purpose: having fun.

“There’s a hard balance to strike with club sports with how much you want to make it serious and how much it’s supposed to be fun,” said Mautner. “Everyone has a lot going on, and as we find that balance and the team continues to grow closer, I’m sure it’ll get easier.”

Mautner said he is planning to spend some of his pickleball earnings while studying abroad in Prague next semester. Already, he is scouring the internet to find Czech pickleball groups.

“If there’s pickleball out there, I’m going to find it,” he said.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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