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Thursday, May 26, 2016

An Inside view of the Georgia Mountain Spring Pickleball Classic

I played in the subject tournament last weekend. Friday was scheduled for Men's Doubles and Saturday was Mixed Doubles. My partner in the Men's bracket was Sandro Francioni, a friend and Hendersonville resident with whom I play regularly. My partner in the Mixed bracket was Suzanne Pell, also a Hendersonville resident but a player with whom I had rarely played. Both partnerships proved successful with a silver in each event. But this post isn't about the play. It is about the tournament.

The Georgia Mountain tournament is similar to the Lowcountry tournament in scope. The tournament had 260+ players from at least 14 states, with the longest trip from Colorado. The tournament is competitive because it separates the brackets into both skill level and age groups. For example, I played at the 3.5 skill level in the 60-70 age bracket. I won't list all the brackets, but the Men's Doubles gives a good idea of the competitive breakdown:

Skill level 2.5/3.0 - Age Bracket 50-59
Skill level 2.5/3.0 - Age Bracket 60-69
Skill level 2.5/3.0 - Age Bracket 70+
Skill level 3.5 - Age Bracket 19-49
Skill level 3.5 - Age Bracket 50-59
Skill level 3.5 - Age Bracket 60-69
Skill level 3.5 - Age Bracket 70+
Skill level 4.0 - Age Bracket 19-49
Skill level 4.0 - Age Bracket 50-59
Skill level 4.0 - Age Bracket 60+
Skill level 4.5/5.0 - Age Bracket All ages

One factor that determines the number of players and brackets is the number of courts available for play. This tournament is played at the Towns County Pickleball Complex in Hiawasee consisting of 14 courts.

The outdoor courts are located in a beautiful setting, on the shore of Lake Chatuge with a view of the North Georgia mountains. Offsetting the beauty was the difficulty of play. The tree-lined "chute" to the lake seemed to channel the wind where it was trapped by the earthen bank. The wind on Friday was blowing strongly from left to right and shifted to the opposite direction on Saturday and Sunday. However, the 3-sided windscreens caused it to swirl and varied from one court to another depending on proximity to the screened walls. The high winds and lack of court dividers caused frequent delays as balls were blown from other courts. Even avoiding that distraction by playing in isolation was problematic as players would have to chase balls from as far as 4 courts away.

This tournament was run by a professional tournament group, Pickleball Specialties. I had never participated in one of their tournaments and had high hopes for an efficient and well-run experience. However, the feedback I received from others and my own view were mixed. 

When first arriving at the tournament, players check in at a central point from where all tournament activities are controlled.

This process was efficient with one exception - only players who were scheduled to play within 30 minutes were allowed to check in. Even when there were down times between events players scheduled for later in the day were not allowed to check in and get their T-shirts and other welcome gifts. 

Prior to starting play, there was limited time available to warm up as the courts were closely monitored. The tournament managers used "gatekeepers" to ensure that only groups of 4 players - those in scheduled games - entered and exited the courts together. I would have expected that such close monitoring would have kept the courts filled to ensure that wait times were minimized, especially with the threat of rain looming. Such was not the case, though. The photo below was taken just before noon on Saturday, a time when the schedule is full...and the courts should be. Most of the courts are empty. The management logistics seem to need major improvement.

The format for the tournament was dependent on the number of teams in the bracket. Smaller brackets used a round-robin format while those brackets meeting a minimum size used a double-elimination format. Each of my brackets had enough teams for a double-elimination format. This simply means that every team must lose 2 matches to be eliminated. The first loss sends the team to the loser's (lower) bracket where they continue to play until a second loss. If a team continues to win in the loser's bracket, they earn the chance to play in the gold medal round. 
  • My Men's Doubles bracket had 13 teams. My partner, Sandro Francioni, and I won all of our winner's bracket games to reach the gold medal round, although not without some drama. We lost the first game of the match 15-6, giving us our first loss. Our opponents had to beat us again due to the double-elimination format. They beat us 15-11 so we won the silver medal.
  • My Mixed Doubles bracket had 23 teams so it was split into 2 divisions with each division awarded a full set of medals. My partner, Suzanne Pell, and I won each winner's bracket game until the winner's bracket final where we lost. We were sent to the loser's bracket final where we won and advanced to the gold medal round. We then met the same team that had beat us before and they did so again. We won the silver medal.
If a player is lucky enough to win a medal, there is a short "ceremony" where photos are taken.

Before moving on, I would like to address why logistics and efficiency matters in these tournaments. My Friday Men's Doubles play was postponed (due to rain) near the end of our winner's bracket final game. When we resumed on Sunday, we played only a few points and then sat...and sat...and sat while waiting for the loser bracket games to be played. So we entered the gold medal round with little play while our opponents had 2 full games to learn the wind and warm up. I am convinced that ply differential worked to our disadvantage. We were frustrated that a better-run schedule would have allowed us to complete play on Friday before the rain even threatened.

As usual at tournaments of this scope, the time between play provides great opportunities to meet new people and socialize with people who share our interest in pickleball. I find this to be a good time to lay the groundwork for future partnership possibilities. One good aspect of the professional management team is that they brought clinics and top players into the weekend. It was nice to meet the Fresos and RV Pickleballers (who had nice things to say about my blog) as well as see Deb Harrison again.

Despite the problems noted above, I recommend this tournament for the quality of facilities, area, and play. It is about 2 hours from Hendersonville so it is short enough to easily get there with time to enjoy other activities. On the other hand, it far enough that overnight stays may be required. I hope that tournament can improve its operations and expect that they will use their first experience to do so.

Additional photos can be seen in my post Georgia Mountain Spring Pickleball Classic Photos.

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