Play On!

McKinley Park tennis keeps senior players young

By LeAne H. Rutherford
December 2021

When I first arrived in Sacramento, yearning to play tennis, I lurked around the McKinley Park courts in East Sacramento to see who was playing and when. Feeling courageous, I stuck my nose through the fence to watch a senior mixed doubles group.

A player retrieving a ball asked if he could be of help. “I’m looking for a game,” I said. Generously he offered, “You can play with us.” That was the beginning of fun and friendship.

A perfect example of energetic, enthusiastic play, this McKinley senior mixed doubles group has existed for more than 20 years. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, they use about three courts—down from five courts or more during healthier, pre-COVID times.

No one is officially in charge of this loosely organized tennis troupe. Players just show up. “The drop-in, no-ad, round-robin format allows me to play different styles and skills,” says Brian Lee, a retired civil engineer.

Players range in age from 58 to 88. However, not age-restrictive, all are welcome. Men outnumber women 4-to-1. Coming from near and far, they bike, walk and drive. Love of the outdoors and the need for exercise draw this diverse group to McKinley Park.

They come from Pocket, Rancho Cordova, Land Park, Woodland, South Sac, West Sac and, naturally, East Sacramento. James Ouse on the Woodland Tennis Club Board drives to McKinley Park just to play in this group. Barbara Claiche from Rancho Cordova grew up near the park, which she accurately describes as “a beautiful park with beautiful people.” Music composer Robert Schrader lives just three blocks away.

Playing experience varies. Mary Jaschke was bitten early by the tennis bug. “Tennis is my first love,” she says. “I have played since I was 11.” I picked up the sport at age 12 with one can of balls for the summer and a Green Stamps racket.

Others started in high school or college. A few, relatively new to the game, have been on the courts for seven years or so. Some took up tennis after raising their families or retiring. Mingling with us are a few former tennis pros, ranked players and competitors on college or USTA teams.

When not playing tennis, these athletes walk several miles a day, swim, play bocce ball, ride horses, hike, golf, read and bike. For those recovering from injury, biking yields both exercise and pleasure. For example, to help mend a cranky knee, I ride 10 miles a day. Tom Higgins is a voracious reader and an intrepid biker, riding 44 miles a day often to Clarksburg and back. He frequently starts a conversation with, “Reading anything good?” Fleet-footed Marshal Stoddard, who brings music on Fridays, hunts lizards with his grandkids, swing dances and enjoys the latest craze, pickleball.

A high correlation exists between baseball and tennis. Bob Sheya played fast pitch soft ball and slow pitch in later years. Chris Morgese as well. If you watch a ball being tossed to another court or returned across the net, it is easy to see who has played baseball. If there is a ball involved, these players have engaged in it: baseball, football, basketball, racquet ball, bocce ball, pickleball, volleyball.

Most of the group’s members have retired. Their broad professional range includes graphic artist, pathologist, general contractor, physical therapist, lawyer, instructional designer, engineer, art dealer, auditor, business executive, medical technologist. However, they have not retired from life. Fishing, photography, book clubs, bridge, travel, caretaking, ornithology are examples of how they fill their lives.

But tennis keeps them alive physically and socially. What brings them here is an overwhelming love of the game and sharing an experience in common. Tennis is a catalyst to community.

Rick Kantola, new to the McKinley group, observes, “They are remarkably friendly.” Jaschke agrees. “It’s the people, the mix of personalities and socializing between sets,” that she appreciates. Even when sitting out a day—usually to wait out an injury—players come to McKinley Park to say hello, watch play and kibitz.

While serious about play, camaraderie abounds. It’s “easy to become friends, as well as get a decent amount of exercise at McKinley,” observes Jonathan Sakakibara. Although competitive, we take pleasure in an opponent’s good shot. I really love to win, but after a while just playing is winning.

“Tennis is addictive,” Stoddard says. “It’s good exercise for seniors—a fun game you can play for most of your life,” claims Morgese, who also says there are times he doesn’t feel like playing, but when he does, he feels good. Peter Werhanowicz adds, “And it keeps you young!”

Place, players and people combine to make Monday, Wednesday and Friday at McKinley Park the place to be. Play on!

LeAne H. Rutherford can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

Stay up-to-date with our always 100% local newsletter!

* indicates required
Type of Newsletter
Share via
Copy link