Just under two weeks before the full-blown start of the Keystone State Games and Jeff Labatch was raving about a sport hardly anyone has heard much about.
“For pickleball, we have over 100 participants,” said Labatch, the director of athletics and collegiate consultant for the Keystone Games. “And registration is still open. It’s a popular game.”
It’s actually a paddle sport combining elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis into a sport that happens to be one of the fastest-growing in the country, in terms of popularity.
“We’re actually up to 175 players right now for pickleball,” corrected Keystone Games executive director Jim Costello. “There’s no question, pickleball has been our most popular non-mainstream sport. Fencing has always been one of our strong suits.”
Just the way the Games are supposed to be.
Because while traditional sports, including baseball and basketball, still generate the most buzz through the Keystone Games, table tennis, bocce, disc golf and archery will try to turn heads right beside them.
It’ll all happen from July 25 through 30 in the Wilkes-Barre area during Pennsylvania’s annual week-long, Olympic-styled summer sports festival — complete with a medal ceremony — that promotes physical fitness and sportsmanship for amateur athletes through various age group divisions.
“Our focus is on sports that don’t get a lot of mainstream attention,” Costello said. “Those sports that aren’t going to get coverage all the time. We really try to take that stance on non-traditional sports, because when we get coverage, it really rallies up that sport a lot.
“That’s always been a part of it.”
Of course, the more popular sports — baseball, basketball, wrestling, ice hockey and field hockey — are still very much part of the Games, which make their return to Wilkes-Barre this summer for the first time since 1992.
Teams from the Pocono Region — mainly composed of players from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area — traditionally get geared up to play opponents from various regions across the state in an effort to restore or retain area pride from previous games.
“In the team sports, there’s still some of that pride,” Labatch said. “They’re tryout sports. You’re playing with people you don’t usually play with, so it’s a chance to meet people and compete against a different region.”
For example, it’s not uncommon to see players from Wyoming Valley Conference rivals Wyoming Valley West and Wyoming Seminary or Coughlin and Lake-Lehman teaming up in an effort to bring the Pocono Region triumph.
“Oh definitely,” said Pocono regional field hockey director Jean Lipski, who will coach one of the two Pocono Region high school-level field hockey teams entered in the Keystone Games. “It’s really a challenge. Obviously, some of the bigger schools from around the state are well-represented. The kids know there are loads of kids on those teams from (PIAA powers) Emmaus or Donegal. I believe they want to take great pride in representing the Pocono Region and want to win for that reason.”
“They want to get a medal this year,” Costello added, “and they want to take out Lehigh Valley. You look at our ice hockey and field hockey and baseball, that is huge to them. Which is pretty neat.”
Since the Keystone Games opened in 1981 under the guidance of the late executive director Owen Costello, Jim’s father, those premier spectator sports have been neatly-packaged into a format that the event’s organizers hope will attract attention to less-familiar sports.
The hope, Jim Costello said, is that people watching or playing tennis will go check out a table tennis event afterwards or those focused on a baseball game might take the time to drop in on a badminton or bocce competition.
“Track and field is in the same location as fencing, we’re having both at Hazleton Area High School,” Costello said. “That’s not by accident. Our hope is the every day athletes, when they’re finished with their event, are able to go and watch something they’ve never seen. We try to keep that continuity as best we can.”
When the Games first began 37 years ago, they featured the best of the best.
But things changed over three decades and the Keystone Games lost some luster.
Travel tournaments have cost the Keystone Games some talent in the sport of baseball. AAU programs and club teams have grown in popularity and summer sports camps and tournaments have caused conflicts for kids committed to out-of-school programs and kept them from competing in the Games.
“It used to be the big thing,” said Lipski, who returned to the Keystone Games five years ago after an extended absence. “Loads and loads of (college field hockey) coaches came, because it was one of the few places where they could see all the different Pennsylvania players in one place.
“Now, with club teams and camps, it’s not as big of a recruiting event as it used to be.”
It’s hard for the Keystone State Games committee to ignore that athletes have many other options now.
“Honestly, it does hurt,” Costello said. “There’s no way around that. In baseball, we’re down five teams from last year. We had to change some things in basketball. But a lot of the way we are able to be so successful is has to do with the fact we are a network of volunteers. We are always looking to evolve, we say, ‘What can we do next?” I rely on people all around the state to forge us ahead.
“We evolve and change.”
Costello said the high school division of the baseball competition was in conflict this year with a major showcase event scheduled for the Lancaster area, and teams from around the state couldn’t commit to playing in the Keystone Games. The result opened the entry for baseball teams to surrounding states, and forced the Keystone Games committee to consider holding a fall ball division for that age group.
The high school basketball competition was moved to the fall, Costello said, because it would have been played too close to the AAU national championships and cost the Games some quality teams and premier players.
“Sometimes we do have to move things around,” Costello said, “just because of facilities and other things. Archery was moved (to Orwigsburg). We’ve got to find our niche with some of the sports too.”
What players and fans will find, though, is an extended period of high-quality competition and an exhilirating experience, no matter what sport they compete in.
“In the team sports, there’s some of that (regional) pride,” Labatch said. “In other sports, it’s something to get them seen by other people. It’s a chance to meet people and compete against a different region. There is still excitement with the games, for all the athletes.
“People just want to compete and have fun.”
Reach Paul Sokoloski at 570-991-6392 or on Twitter @TLPaulSokoloski