Benefield: Pickleball for all in Sonoma County sounds like fun

A clinic for beginners in Rohnert Park is peppered with humor and friendly faces.|

Want to watch the tournament or pick up a racket?

To see the full schedule for the pickleball tournament within the Council on Aging’s Sonoma Wine Country Games, go to

Free introductory pickleball clinics take place 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Thursdays and Saturdays at Sunrise Park, 5301 Snyder Ln., Rohnert Park.

Judy LaBrucherie was just walking down the street near Sunrise Park in Rohnert Park when before she knew it, her Thursday and Saturday mornings were gone.

Whoosh, just like that, a good slice of LaBrucherie’s life was owned by pickleball.

And you will hear nary a complaint about it.

“We were just walking by and the clinic was here,” she said of a morning walk with husband Darren about four months ago.

They had looked through the fence, spied hordes of people playing pickleball, having a hoot and went to inquire what it was all about.

“We came in, they lent us a racket and that was it,” she said.

They have been coming to the free, volunteer-run introduction to pickleball clinics on Rohnert Park’s city courts twice a week ever since.

Brooke Davis of Rohnert Park had a more conscious decision to make about her relationship with pickleball, which is kind of like tennis, only it’s played on a smaller court and with a ball akin to a Wiffle ball and something that looks like giant ping-pong paddle.

“Well, my husband was playing and he was never home so I decided if I wanted to be with him I needed to learn how to play,” she said. “It’s been such a pleasure.”

And the leaders kept her coming back.

“They are patient, they are good coaches,” she said. “And they are giving to the community and how could I not want to be a part of that?”

The idea for free community tutorials started a little over a year ago.

Bill Petrie, 79, who is an actual, official ambassador of the game of pickleball, was offering what he calls “introductory sessions” to beginners on Saturday mornings at Sunrise Park.

Think: This is a paddle, this is a ball, this is where you stand, kind of thing.

But the Pengel sisters (well, some of them), avid pickleballers all, thought, let’s go bigger.

“Miriam and Molly got interested and said ‘Let’s do it on Thursday, too,’” he said. “It was just kind of word-of-mouth and it started getting bigger and bigger.”


In a little more than a year, the free sessions have grown to about 40-plus people on an average Thursday morning and more than 60 people regularly show up to the Saturday morning sessions.

“Pickleball has just exploded so everyone has gone crazy about it,” Miriam Pengel, one of the three Pengel sisters who volunteer their time at the clinics, said.

The whole operation is casual and all-volunteer run, but it’s organized. Players are stationed according to ability and experience, and instructors work with them accordingly.

Dave Harris works with the more seasoned folks, using a ball machine and critiquing footwork.

Petrie and the Pengels move between other groups talking about paddle grip, stance and follow-through.

So popular are these clinics that Rohnert Park Pickleball has been chosen to host the pickleball competition as part of the Council on Aging Wine Country Games that open Friday.

About 240 or so pickleballers are expected to play in women’s, men’s and mixed play over three days at Sunrise Park, according to Petrie.

“We just like bringing people into the game,” he said.

To that end, this edition of the Wine Country Games pickleball tourney will have more entry level slots than ever before.

No longer do the competition categories prohibit beginners. Entrants must have a certain level of skill, but they don’t have to be on the cusp of going pro to play.

“That was important because there are so many people who say, ‘Why can’t we play?’” said longtime pickleball tutor Miriam Pengel. “Why not? Let ‘em play.”

Davis has only been playing the game a year but has been a regular at the free clinics and she is jumping at the chance to play in a tournament environment.

Sort of.

She’s actually a little nervous.

“I’ve never played in a tournament before,” she said. “And my partner Lori has never played before, so we are super nervous and we weren’t going to play but then we thought, well it’s (beginners) and these are our friends, so we are going to play.”

That’s the feeling the leaders of the morning clinics are trying to foster: Confidence mixed with a good dose of fun.

LaBrucherie and her husband, both of whom have tennis backgrounds, have signed up for the mixed doubles tournament.

“(I’m playing) with my husband who is very competitive so hopefully we will be talking to each other after the game,” she said.

And it’s all for a good cause. The tournament benefits the nonprofit organization, Council on Aging, which has provided services to those over age 60 in Sonoma County for more than five decades.

But those who love the game and spend their Thursday and Saturday mornings instructing folks for free say the tournament is also a way to shine a light on the fun and growth pickleball represents.

There is a reason Petrie and Molly Pengel are official ambassadors of the game.

“It’s kind of funny,” Molly Pengel said. “You can have a really great day on the pickleball court and you can have a really bad day, but you will come back that third day because it’s so much fun.”

“It’s very addicting,” she said.

As if making her point, the 40-plus folks playing at various stations and working on different skills at Sunrise Park Thursday morning are hooting and laughing.


There are jokes about serving up meatballs and stepping into the kitchen. Apparently the latter is actual pickleball terminology, but the meatball references are all Pengel.

The game is for anybody and everybody, proponents say.

Petrie was a longtime tennis and racquetball player, but now, as he inches ever closer to his 80th birthday, pickleball is a better fit.

“I’m a little heavy and my movement is not that good,” he said. “You don’t have to be mobile, mobile, mobile. It helps because you are only covering 10 feet wide. It’s easier on your body than tennis, easier on your body than racquetball.”

And ask anyone on the courts on a recent Thursday morning, and they say it’s a blast.

“We were having a gas. We are laughing our heads off. It’s competitive but it’s really, really fun,” LaBrucherie said.

It must be.

When the Thursday morning session ends, a ton of folks stick around to continue playing. They play their own round robin games. Some move to the more advanced courts nearby.

Some just watch more advanced players go at it.

Davis said she typically stays two or three hours after each session, just to work on what she’s learned and maybe to laugh a little more.

Miriam Pengel said that’s what it’s all about: Community.

“How else are you going to meet 60 people on a Saturday,” she said. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s meeting people and building friendships.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or On Twitter @benefield.

Want to watch the tournament or pick up a racket?

To see the full schedule for the pickleball tournament within the Council on Aging’s Sonoma Wine Country Games, go to

Free introductory pickleball clinics take place 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Thursdays and Saturdays at Sunrise Park, 5301 Snyder Ln., Rohnert Park.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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