There is a new sport that has been growing in the Midcoast and picking up new players at every turn. A game that is a hybrid of many activities most grew up playing, and a game that brings players young and old together on an otherwise equal playing field — or, in this case, court.

The game is pickleball.

Pickleball combines elements of tennis, ping pong and badminton. The paddles are larger than ping-pong paddles, while the balls are perforated and plastic. The net is modified and closer to a badminton net than a tennis net.

Click for photos of pickleball at the Midcoast Recreation Center.

And the game has been catching on for those in the Midcoast the past year and shows no signs of slowing down.

While locally the game has only been on the rise the past calendar year or so, the game is far from new.

The game originally began in the 1960s and has its own association — the United States Pickleball Association — which holds competitions and tournaments on a national scale.

Games are prevalent at the Midcoast Recreation Center in Rockport, where there is a group of 20-plus players who compete three times a week.

They also play at the Penobscot Bay YMCA in Rockport, while the town of Rockport is looking into allowing the group to have lines painted on one basketball court and one tennis court at the Marge Jones Recreational Facility on Route 90.

The Pen Bay YMCA will resume pickleball on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to noon starting Sept. 1. It is free for YMCA members and $5 for non-members.

The Waldo County contingent also has several locales where they play, including Belfast City Park, Point Lookout in Northport and the Waldo County YMCA.

There also are groups that play out of the Damariscotta YMCA, while there are other hubs playing the game in Waterville, Hampden, Brunswick and Portland, among other cities.

“I think we were the first in the area here to start pickleball,” said MRC arena director Jesse Simko. “Since then I think the [Pen Bay] YMCA has picked it up and some other local areas, so we were running the first clinics here and we saw that wave starting to form. And I think we are still potentially seeing the building of that wave. This year it has been much more popular.”

75-year-old Marilyn Hotch, who lives in Camden and plays in Rockport, is one of several area players who were hooked on the game early.

“It's interesting because it attracts all ages from say 13 to over 80,” she said. “And while it's a very easy game to learn — and most people that pick it up become quickly adapted and very addicted — it also has a lot of competition.”

73-year-old Bob Vermilyea of Northport, who plays in Waldo County, agrees.

“It's easy to learn and it's a wonderful sport for just about anybody,” he said. “It's great for any age, it's good for exercise, it's good for communication [and] its good for fun with all the people. We're all basically competitive, but the big thing for us is enjoyment of the sport.

“I'd go crazy without it. It's almost like a disease. I'm playing 20 hours a week. That's a hell of a workout when you're in your 70s.”

There are four quadrants on the court, with the middle section on either side of the net split off into non-volley zones, also referred to as “the kitchen.” The court is 44 feet by 20 feet, while “the kitchen" is 15 feet long within those dimensions.

A player can enter the zone, but cannot strike the ball unless it bounces there first, eliminating the chance of, for instance, a strong forehand winner by the net, which is prevalent in tennis.

Points can only be scored by the serving team, or side, depending on if the game is singles or doubles. Also, serves are underhand, unlike the overhand serves of tennis.

The server must serve to the adjacent box of their opponent and must clear the non-volley zone. The server serves until the opponent wins the rally and then gives way to his/her teammate to serve. Once the opponent wins the rally of the teammate's serve, the opposition then gets a chance to serve.

Vermilyea said the court is roughly one-third the size of a tennis court and that the pickleball is slower than a tennis ball.

“It's more of a finesse game than tennis in many ways,” he said. “Basically you're waiting for the other person to make a mistake. An unforced error if you will.”

It is that finesse, among other factors, that often keeps the competition close.

“The quality of play is so equal,” said Vermilyea. “We have some people in their 30s and 40s that play and I don't see any disparity between the younger people that are quicker than we are. I have an artificial hip [so] I don't move like some of them do."

“You can't just hit the ball, run in and smash a winner,” said Simko. “You have to wait back and by that alone, it gives the returner an advantage and kind of neutralizes the game.”

While the game is competitive, the social, good-natured aspect of the sport is what often brings people back.

“It's a very social and inclusive game,” said Hotch. “When people show up who've never played, everyone accommodates. You get them involved, you show them how to do it and pretty soon they're [doing it].”

“Almost every day there will be one or two people that haven't tried it and we drag them right in,” said Vermilyea. “We'll say 'Come on, we have the paddles, we have the equipment, come and give it a try.' And I would say three out of four jump right in.”

“This is a game where you can come from no major athletic background and pick up fairly well, fairly quickly,” said Simko. “That's another cool aspect. To be proficient, it doesn't take that much time.”

Hotch said in the south “wherever you go there are say 20-30 pickleball courts. It's that popular.”

“We have the snowbirds that come up here in the summer and they're the ones that have really helped us get going because they were so advanced,” said Vermilyea, who added on any given day upwards of 25-30 players will be playing the game.

There is open play at MRC on Mondays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon and on Wednesdays from 9 to 10:30 a.m.

Vermilyea said in Waldo County “we have kind of a public schedule of Monday, Wednesday and Friday [at Belfast City Park]," but “people can go in there anytime to play.”

“For all practical purposes, we're playing seven days a week,” he said.

An opportunity for inquiring minds to learn about the game is around the corner as MRC will host the second annual Midcoast Pickleball tournament on Saturday, Aug. 22, where there will be men's, women's and mixed doubles in a round-robin format. There is no charge to attend the tournament to observe play.

For more information on the tourney, email Simko at jesse@midcoastrec.org.