Leitersburg Man is a ‘Big Dill’ on the Pickleball Court
Bill Hunsberger believes that exercise should be a part of everyone’s daily life.
By Crystal Schelle
At a spry and agile 87 years young, the Leitersburg resident practices what he preaches.
“I just think it’s good for your head,” he said.
The retired clinical social worker has been an athlete for most of his life, including skiing, sailing, horseback riding and jumping. These days when it comes to keeping his body limber, Hunsberger’s game of choice is pickleball.
But Hunsberger hasn’t just dabbled in the sport, he’s excelled, earning national titles along the way.
He heard about the game around 2013 when the Hagerstown YMCA converted indoor tennis courts to pickleball courts.
“I remember thinking ‘I don’t even know what this is,’” he said with a laugh.
Pickleball, according to the USA Pickleball Association, combines the skills of tennis, badminton and ping-pong on a double badminton-sized court. The game can be played indoors or outdoors and is often, like the ones at Y, are converted tennis courts but with striped zones and a pickleball net, which is 35 inches high at each end and 34 inches high in the middle.
Players use a lightweight composite paddle smaller than a tennis racket, but bigger than a ping-pong paddle. The ball used is similar to a Wiffle ball, which, according to the USAPA, travels at one-third the speed of a tennis ball. Pickleball is played more often with doubles than doubles. And in front of the net is a 7-foot non-volley zone referred to as the kitchen. The first team to get 11 points or who wins by two points wins.
Hunsberger, who used to play tennis, was intrigued by the sport. And after a game on the pickleball courts, he was hooked.
“Once you play it, it’s easy to get addicted to it,” he said.
What Hunsberger enjoys about pickleball is that it’s competitive, just like tennis. However, what he especially likes is the social aspect of the game.
“The games aren’t too long, so you get to chat between games,” he said.
The same year he started to play pickleball his wife, Sylvia, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. When nurses would come to his house five days away for several hours, he would go to the pickleball courts to play.
He earned his first medal at the Seaside Class, an annual pickleball tournament, in Myrtle Beach, N.C. Hunsberger has a long family history in Myrtle Beach, as well as continues to work in real estate in the town, which made the win even sweeter.
That win was just the first. At the Pennsylvania Keystone Senior Games in Chambersburg, he met Pothen Varughese, a retired college professor, who lived in Indiana, Pennsylvania. The two decided they should pair up as a doubles team.
In 2017, the newly minted doubles team took home a gold medal at the National Senior Games in Birmingham, Alabama. It was Hunsberger’s first trip to the nationals and only the second time he played with Varughese; they played in the 80-84 age group. Varughese is one year younger.
“We haven’t lost a match yet,” Hunsberger said. “We’ve won 47 out of 49 games.”
The National Senior Games is for those 50 and older who compete in 19 sports from basketball to golf, and, of course, pickleball. Athletes compete in age-groups to qualify for national games, usually held in odd-numbered years and state competitions are in even-numbered years. To get a slot in the National Senior Games, senior athletes have to place in the top four in the off years.
In 2019, Hunsberger and his partner won another gold at the National Senior Games, which was in Alber- quere, New Mexico.
After a long battle with Alzheimer’s, Sylvia passed away March 26, 2020. They were married for 61 years, and have two sons, Michael and Ryan, and two grandchildren.
“It took me about a year-and-a-half before I could really see the rest of the world,” he said of his wife’s passing.
Hunsberger credits pickleball for giving him something to focus on to help him through the grief.
“During this time, pickleball has become a very important part of my life,” he said.
The National State Games were postponed due to COVID-19 in 2021 and were pushed to 2022. Time off didn’t hurt the team. In May 2022, he and Varughese returned to the National Senior Games, this time held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They walked with another gold in men’s doubles in the 85+ division.
But that was a nailbiter as Hunsberger and Varughese faced fierce competitors. Hunsberger said he and his partner won three games, and the other team also won three games before facing them.
“We won the first game, and the second game was really close,” he said. “But we thought we were going to lose the third game, but we didn’t. … it was pretty exciting.”
Hunsberger also won a bronze medal with his new mixed doubles partner, Betty de la Cruz. It was the first time he medaled in mixed.
Just three days after winning that game, he was playing in Myrtle Beach when he tripped and chipped a bone in his hand.
“If I had done that three days earlier, we wouldn’t have been playing any doubles,” he said.
In the meantime, he’ll continue to play with his eyes on Pittsburgh Senior Games in 2023.
What keeps Hunsberger returning to the pickleball court is the friendships he’s made.
“I used to tell people who were getting a divorced or so forth that you got to get a life like a hobby or sport — and go for it,” he said. “It gets you with other people who like the same stuff. In other words, it keeps you going. Otherwise, you sit at home and you got nothing going on.”
That’s why he encourages people to join him on the court.
“They come out and play once or twice, and they have fun playing pickleball as well as getting exercise,” he said.