By Alex Abrams
Red Line Editorial
Dozens of teenagers traveled to Clay, Alabama, near Birmingham, to play pickleball on May 13.
They spent the morning going back and forth against each other on the outdoor pickleball courts around Clay. The matches continued, one after another, for several hours until the state’s top doubles teams were crowned.
In a sign of pickleball’s growing popularity with a younger generation, 84 students from 11 high schools and middle schools competed in this year’s Alabama High School Pickleball State Championships.
This was the third year that the state tournament had been held, and tournament director Shane Shelnutt said it was by far the largest field in the event’s short history. He said the number of players doubled from last year to this year.
“I just think it’s the popularity of the sport. There are more and more kids playing,” Shelnutt said. “A lot of that is because of their parents and grandparents, but a lot more courts are being built around the area. Some of the schools are incorporating it in their PE curriculum, but it’s growing really fast, especially in the Birmingham metro area.”
Pickleball players from across the state took part in the one-day tournament. A team from Spanish Fort, Alabama, along the Gulf Coast, traveled more than 200 miles to play matches in Clay.
Hewitt-Trussville High School in Trussville, Alabama, which is located only a few miles from Clay, dominated the tournament’s high school division. It won both the boys and the girls team state championships. Nolan Armstrong and Ryan Stauffer captured the high school boys’ state title, while the doubles team of Lacie Shelnutt and Riley Edwards earned the top spot on the girls’ side.
Bragg Middle School of Gardendale, Alabama, was equally as dominant in the middle school division. Bret Sizemore and Cameron Roberts won the middle school boys’ state championship. Meanwhile, their classmates, Josey Shackleford and Natalie Thornton, made their way through the middle school girls’ bracket and finished atop the medal podium. As a result, Bragg Middle School was crowned the team champion for both the middle school boys and girls.
Shelnutt said all teenagers in Alabama were eligible to enter the state tournament, regardless of whether they attended a public school or a private school. Even teenagers who are homeschooled were eligible.
Players didn’t need to qualify for the tournament. They simply had to sign up for it through PickleballBrackets.com.
The Alabama High School Pickleball State Championships has grown since its first year, when it was held in Trussville because the city had six indoor courts that could host matches during inclement weather.
Shelnutt said Clay, with a population around 10,000, has embraced pickleball. He had access to 18 courts around the city for this year’s event, and he received plenty of community support as well.
“When you have that many courts, you can do a lot of pickleball,” Shelnutt said.
While this year’s tournament featured only doubles teams, Shelnutt said there is talk that next year’s event could also include players facing each other in singles matches.
Shelnutt said he has seen pickleball grow in popularity over the years in Alabama, where college football is king.
The USA Pickleball National Indoor Championships were held in Hoover, Alabama, in 2021 and 2022. Last year’s tournament was estimated to bring nearly 1,000 players of all ages from across the country to the Birmingham area.
Hoover is located only 30 miles from Clay.
Shelnutt said pickleball has found a following in the Birmingham area thanks in large part to new courts being built and making it so children can play throughout the year.
“We have six courts in one area. There’s 11 courts in another city. There are probably 50-60 kids every night when the weather is good that are just playing now,” Shelnutt said. “The young people in this area at least, they’ve really bought into it, and they really enjoy it.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to USA Pickleball on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.