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Fleming Island High trying to serve up new pickleball program

Posted 12/31/69

FLEMING ISLAND – For one high school in Clay County, momentum is picking up for the newest sporting sensation.

Tessa Wilson is a local pickleball prodigy and All-County tennis star. Ahmed …

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Fleming Island High trying to serve up new pickleball program


Posted

FLEMING ISLAND – For one high school in Clay County, momentum is picking up for the newest sporting sensation.

Tessa Wilson is a local pickleball prodigy and All-County tennis star. Ahmed El-Zarif plays competitive travel pickleball with her. The two teammates, both students at Fleming Island High, devised a game plan: launch the beloved sport of pickleball in Fleming Island and throughout the School District.

When Wilson hosted the first meeting of the Pickleball Club in August, she expected a turnout of maybe 20 to 30 students. To her astonishment, 75 students attended the meeting, demonstrating the remarkable interest in the sport, which is growing nationwide. “We were blown away with how many people actually wanted to join the team,” she said. 

But Wilson and El-Zarif have far bigger plans. To increase pickleball’s reach across the Northeast Florida region, the sport will need to jump through a few hoops. To reach varsity status in the School District, at least four high schools must participate at the club level for two years. 

With one student and one coach or faculty member needed to sponsor a club sport, Wilson took the initiative at Fleming Island by linking with Eagles’ Girls Tennis Head Coach Molly McNeill to kickstart the program.

Then, El-Zarif reached out to County Athletic Director Jay Stilianou and high school principals to get the ball rolling. After some persistence, El-Zarif received an email containing instructions on how he could help other schools start a club-level sport.

Last summer, the Eagles’ Club Pickleball team hosted a fundraiser at the Eagle Harbor Tennis Club. The event was dubbed a success after raising $1,300.

“As soon as people heard that we wanted to start pickleball, they asked, ‘How can I donate? Can I give paddles and equipment? What can I do?’” Wilson said.

Currently, the pickleball torchbearers in the county are Fleming Island and Middleburg Highs. They held a scrimmage on Oct. 17 to experiment with multiple formats, including mixed doubles and matches combining players from both schools.

“I think everyone loved it because you get to compete against another school instead of just practicing against your own team. It was just fun to see people enjoy the sport and its social aspect,” Wilson said. 

Wilson started pickleball as an extension of her passion for tennis, but soon after she picked up her new pickleball paddle, the game flickered from a hobby to an addiction.

“I love competing, and I’ve played tennis my whole life, so I always loved that sport. But when I first stepped onto the Pickleball court, I said, ‘I love this more,’” she said. 

With Wilson and El-Zarif playing at a high level of competition, traveling across the state for events, the pair could become a dominant force in bringing the sport to a varsity level at Fleming Island. 

Last April, the dynamic duo participated in the U.S. Pickleball Open in Naples, which spanned a week. The event, sponsored by the Professional Pickleball Association, gave them the chance to win a “golden ticket,” which can be acquired by players who win a gold medal at a tournament in their designated bracket. This means the pair will compete at the upcoming Nationals in Dallas in November.

“It’s exciting because they are very dedicated to it, very committed to it,” she said. 

The Golden Eagles’ practice is each Tuesday and Thursday, and Wilson’s father, Graham Wilson, heads the program. Twice-weekly sessions give students ample opportunities to sharpen their skills and bond as a team while also advertising the school’s new pickleball program as students pass by the tennis courts.

Wilson shared her excitement about the growing club.

“Even if you don’t have previous experience, we have a lot of people who joined who have never picked up a pickleball paddle. Now, they are competing and love it,” she said.