Niagara-on-the-Lake Pickleball Club members have been coming home with medals from recent tournaments, including four golds in two competitions.
While court time for pickleball players remains an issue amidst all the challenges following the legal decision to prohibit the sport on the outdoor Virgil courts, Tracy Booth, the new president of the NOTL Pickleball Club, says she is pleased members were able “to put their woes aside for a few days” at the recent National Pickleball Championships.
With more than 950 participants from across Canada gathering in Kingston, Ont., the championship is the largest pickleball event in Canada, says Booth. More than 20 club members competed over five days, facing fierce competition, and returning home with six medals across several categories.
Jerry Eitze was the men’s singles gold medalist in his age and skill category, and also came home with two silver medals in mixed doubles, competing with Oriana Oszip in their skill category and in two different age groups.
John Hindle, past president of the club, says the national competition and the success of local players is a great story for the club.
“We did enormously well for a club that is new to that level of competition,” he says.
Eitze “was amazing, inspirational to us all. And he’s the most humble person, most personable man you’d ever want to meet.”
Thanks to Eitze and some of the other players, “we’re winning national awards in this little town of 16,000 people, in this very supportive community.”
Jerry’s wife Barb also competed at the nationals, but she doesn’t compete with Jerry in doubles, or at the same skill level — he is a more advanced player than she is.
“He moved up so quickly,” Barb says. “I couldn’t keep up with him.”
As Jerry is moving up a skill level after his recent wins, Barb jokes, “that gives the rest of us a chance at a medal.”
She explains that players are graded by skill, starting at 3.0, then moving up to 3.5, 4.0, and 4.5. And for each skill level, there are age categories.
Jerry, she says, turns 70 in August, “but he’s a young 70, very active, and very determined. He spends a lot of time watching the pros. He wants to be the best he can be. He takes it very seriously, but he’s also very calm when he plays.”
Barb and Jerry started playing with a smaller club on Arthur Street in St. Catharines, until they heard about the new outdoor facility in NOTL about three years ago, and have played there since, finding it quite different. “It’s a learning, growing club,” she says. We got some instruction, some lessons, and Jerry kept getting better and moving up. I’m still working on it.”
Although they don’t play as a team in competitions, “I love playing against him. I play a really good game against him.”
Jerry and other competitive players in the NOTL club have benefited from their club pro, Adam Eatoch, who works with the advanced players, says Barb.
“If we want to get better, we go to Adam. He gives us the tools we need to get better.” And as players get better, they look for other players, at other clubs, with the same skill level, which also helps them improve.
Barb says lack of court time is hampering those who want to play every day to improve their skill level. “We can’t move forward as fast we’d like to without the court time.”
Jerry explains he played hockey for 45 years, and when he stopped, he needed something else to do, and turned to pickleball.
“I thought I would give it a try, and got Barb involved, and we both really enjoyed it,” he says. “I think it’s a great way to get exercise. It’s such a shame — we just got past COVID, everyone wants to play, and the courts are closed.”
He met Oszip at another tournament, and they decided to compete in the doubles competition, winning gold. That led to the recent partnership in Kingston, and two silvers. Oszip doesn’t live nearby or play in NOTL, so they don’t practice together, but will likely team up for tournaments again.
Jerry says he has benefited from the opportunity to play with others “who were really gracious, letting me play with them. The people we’ve met through pickleball have been so nice, so accommodating, it’s been a really good experience for both of us.”
And he is really appreciative of town staff for everything they’ve done to find venues for club members to play, including the Centennial Arena.
“I’ve played in the Haig Bowl (in St. Catharines), and Virgil is much nicer. We’re enjoying that for sure. We’re really thankful for all that NOTL had done for the pickleball community. They’re doing the best they can do.”
As for what to expect or hope for in the future, Jerry says, at his age, never knowing what’s around the corner, he takes things “one day at a time.” He is just happy to wake up every day and look forward to playing, getting exercise, and enjoying himself while he does it.
How does it feel to be a national level gold medal winner?
“I feel very fortunate, very blessed to be able to play. Winning a medal is just a bonus.”
Jerry wasn’t the only pickleball club member to won gold.
Booth says club members also did not come home empty-handed from the 2022 North York Cup, held Saturday.
Club member Kris Guerrieri, along with his partner Mario Grenier won gold in men’s doubles skill 3.0 (all ages), club members Scott Lapointe and Dwayne Yeager won gold in men’s doubles skill 4.0 (all ages), “and our very own club professional, Adam Eatoch, along with his partner Mark Cleminson played well into the night, capturing gold in the men’s doubles skill open.
Coming up for players wanting to get into competitions is the Tecumseh Pickleball Tournament in Windsor, Ont. A new sports complex boasts 10 new courts, built at a cost of $750,000, after the local club grew to 400 members in five years, and will host the competition.
The NOTL players are looking at the tournament as a social event, says Hindle, one of the players planning to compete, and an opportunity to “play our hearts out, have some fun, and see how we do in competition.This is a new trend for our club, to be a little more competitive. But we’re not going to go crazy. We just want to have some fun.”
Booth says as the club has grown, it has also become more competitive. With four levels of play offered, from beginners up to competitive and advanced, players are improving, entering tournaments and finding they are successful. For many of the group going to Tecumseh, she says, it will be their first tournament.
Locally, other municipalities such as Fenwick and Grimsby are also opening outdoor facilities, with dedicated, customized pickleball courts. “Pickleball is everywhere,” she says.
Booth, a competitive player at the 4.0 level — the next level is 4.5, or pro — plays at the community centre, at the arena, and at other courts around the region.
“Every outlet has a pocket of advanced players,” she says, and by going further afield, she is able to play with those who can challenge each other.
“Wouldn’t it be great to have an amazing outdoor facility here in NOTL,” she adds, “and to have tournaments here. There is definitely an appetite in the rest of the province to come to NOTL to play.”
The NOTL Pickleball Club has more than 250 members and continues to grow, welcoming new members on a regular basis, says Booth. Information about the club can be found on their website at notlpickleball.ca.
Medals at the National Pickleball Champions — 31 events, some events played twice in different age groups, for seven medals, with skills level and age category:
Gold: Jerry Eitze
mens singles 3.5 65+
Silver: Jackie Collins &
Kelli McRoberts 3.5 40-49
Silver: Jerry Eitze &
Oriana Oszip 3.5 65-69
Silver: Jerry & Oriana Oszip 3.5 65+
Bronze: Ron Pychel & Vera (Weiran) Zhang 3.0 50+
Bronze: Kris Guerrieri & Mario Grenier, 3.5, 19-49
Bronze: Elaine Somerville & Linda Kowamoto 4.0+ 60-79