Big League Fun

Miss the childhood days of teaming up with friends in pursuit of sports glory? Plenty of possibilities are still out there.

When most of the country is packing up balls and bats and racquets for the winter, Florida athletes lick their lips in anticipation of some of the most temperate outdoor sports weather of the year. And you can’t beat the variety of sports found in Central Florida.

Here’s a primer on the games available to you in the months ahead.

Basketball: Hoop Dreams

Even in fall and winter, it’s nice to be able to get your court reps in without squinting under a bright sun.

One easy way to accomplish that is at the Ocala Adult (18+) Basketball League, playing at E.D. Croskey Recreation Center (1510 NW 4th St.). Games are friendly, yet competitive. The season runs six weeks, with a month of games (eight total), followed by a two-week playoff tournament.

Teams can register for $225. But act quickly, because play begins on October 6. (The Spring League starts up at the end of February.)

For more information: Email Charles Dobson at [email protected] or call (352) 629-8389.

Bowling: Strike Back

Ocala and Central Florida isn’t just home to a number of famous professional bowlers (among them Walter Ray Williams Jr., Norm Duke and Jason Couch), it hosts a vibrant bowling scene.

Best bets in Ocala roll in at AMF Galaxy Lanes East (3225 SE Maricamp Road) and West (1818 SW 17th St.). AMF boasts a buffet of 12 leagues running at any given time, spanning skill level, age and gender. Mixed play leagues (with fewer age, gender or skill level restrictions) are a popular choice as well.

Didi Restrepo has played in AMF leagues “for about three decades, give or take” and loves the fact that the two Ocala AMFs combine the modern with the familiar.

“You see all ages here bowling,” she says. “[The seniors] have fun, but look at the lanes at any given time. It’s a great mix of ages and skill levels. I’ve met gals who were first-time bowlers in my leagues, and years later, they’re still here playing.”

Over in Citrus County, you’re more apt to find longtime alleys, where the grain in the lanes has experienced plenty of perfect games and 800 series.

A mainstay for 56 years, Sportsmen’s Bowl in Inverness (100 N Florida Ave.) boasts all the usual, year-round league action you’d expect. And on Friday nights, the themes arise: glow bowling, colored head pin strikes and mystery score promotions.

Parkview Lanes in Holder (7272 N Florida Ave.) offers regular league play as well as Monday-Wednesday-Friday Coffee Clubs, beginning at 9am. Enjoy the free coffee and doughnuts, as well as numerous in-game promotions.

Built in 1982 and still under original ownership, Manatee Lanes (7715 W Gulf to Lake Highway, Crystal River) offers a huge variety of league play on weekday nights.

For more information: Galaxy Lanes (352) 694-1111 or AMF.com; Sportsmen’s Bowl (352) 726-2873 or SportsmensBowl.com; Parkview Lanes (352) 489-6933 or ParkviewLanes.net; Manatee Lanes (352) 795-4546 or Manatee-Lanes.com.

Disc Golf: Whip it Good

The best area disc golf course is nestled into Whispering Pines City Park in Inverness (beginning at 1900 Highway 41 N). This sprawling, 27-hole setup runs nearly a mile long and cuts through 290 acres of forest. The park offers no disc golf league per se, but there’s a regular meetup of players on at least a weekly basis.

“This is more fun than I expected,” says Ocala resident and disc golf newbie Nathan Johnson, playing the course for the third time. “The first time I played here, I knew I had to come back.”

The Ocala Disc Golf Group on Facebook is an essential tool for players looking for tournaments, as well as finding available players to meet up with for rounds. There are two courses in town: Sawmill (NE 60th Court) and Ocala Greenway (7 Redwood Track Trail). And who knows, maybe at some point you’ll bump into the greatest disc golf player of all time, the “Jack Nicklaus of Disc Golf,” Clearwater’s Ken Climo.

For more information: Contact Whispering Pines at (352) 726-3913.

Kickball: Not Just For Kids

Channel your inner 10 year old, and get back into the kick of things at Citrus County Parks and Recreation’s Kickball League at Bicentennial Park (501 N. Baseball Point, Crystal River). The league, open to men and women players, will start up a new season of Tuesday night games next February.

The league welcomes all levels of player, from beginners to former sixth-grade All-Stars. The season runs seven to eight weeks and will end with a top-four team, single-elimination tournament to determine kickball bragging rights for all of Central Florida (OK, Citrus County).

Reserving a team is $50, which serves as a deposit toward each team’s total league fee.

For more information: Call Citrus County Parks and Recreation at (352) 527-7540.

Ping-Pong: Hotter Than Ever

The sport, regarded more formally as “table tennis,” is back in a big way.

Ocala Ping-Pong (2611 SW College Road) has limited open ping-pong play, as it is currently sharing space with a Taekwondo Studio. However, private lessons and Monday-Wednesday classes are offered by former South Korean ping-pong pro Lucy Jeong.

“Many people in the United States [dismiss ping-pong] as a pure ‘garage’ sport, but you will be amazed at how hard it is to deal with all the different kinds of spin and speed of the balls,” Jeong says.

Jeong’s teaching reputation has spread quickly in the short time she’s run her ping-pong academy. Students travel from great distances to learn, and breathlessly dub her the best ping-pong coach around.

“I feel like my game improves after every lesson,” says Gainesville’s Robbie Curry. “She knows when to prod and when to praise, and it’s been so much fun to work with her.”

On eight tables in the Armstrong Gym at Silver Springs Shores Presbyterian Church every Thursday from 6-9:30pm, Ocala Table Tennis (674 Silver Road) gathers for play.

“Our club is focused on having fun, regardless of skill level,” says John Shultz, club vice president and webmaster. “Everyone is welcome, and the regulars are happy to meet new players and get them started. Don’t be surprised to hear a joyful shout as someone smashes a great shot.”

Shultz adds that the club boasts some tournament-level players, winning medals in state and national tournaments, but that the majority of players are in it for the health benefits and to improve their games. Cost is $3 per session (free for students).

If you’re more of a laid-back paddler, every Monday at 8pm is Ping-Pong Monday at Infinite Ale Works (304 S Magnolia, Ocala).

“This is the most fun sport I’ve ever played,” says Meg Bostic, who began playing in 2016 and claims a first-round victory at Infinite Ale’s initial ping-pong tournament back in January. “Whenever I’m about to play, I just start smiling.”

For more information: Ocala Ping-Pong (352) 586-5212; Ocala Table Tennis (352) 537-4104; Infinite Ale Works (352) 502-0212.

Pickleball: For the Masses

Demand for the tennis/ping-pong/badminton hybrid dubbed “pickleball” is soaring, with leagues all over the Ocala area. But if you’ve never heard of it, don’t feel bad—the game (named after a family dog) was invented thousands of miles away in Washington, only 50 years ago!

But has the sport ever caught on here: There are hundreds of players in Ocala and more than 1,000 in The Villages alone. Last November, the On Top of the World Pickleball Club (9030 SW 99 St. Road, Ocala) hosted its inaugural Pickleball Doubles Tournament, raising more than $2,300 for the Ocala Domestic Violence/Sexual Assualt Center in the process. This year’s tournament lands on November 4.

However, if you’re looking for championship pickleball, you may need to travel a bit northwest, to Birmingham, Alabama. At least that’s where Citrus Hills pickleball pros Jack Trafalsk and Steve Arlen took home a gold medal in Men’s Doubles (age 75-to-79 division) at the 2017 National Senior Games.

Citrus Hills, like On Top of the World, boasts a vibrant pickleball scene. Frankly, there’s not a community in Florida where a court isn’t close at hand, with league play available. Some, like the indoor courts recently drawn at the Citrus County Auditorium (3610 S Florida Ave., Inverness) are available for drop-in, air-conditioned play.

For more information: PickleballOcala.com, CitrusHills.com/Tennis, Pickleball.com.

Softball: Served Any Way You Want It

There are softball leagues scattered throughout the area, featuring anything from ultra-competitive men’s play to casual, co-ed games.

In Ocala, the biggest and longest-running Men’s Slow-Pitch Softball league runs at the Ocala Regional Sportsplex (3900 SW 67th Ave.). Play is year-round, every Tuesday night. Typically, the league is separated into “recreational” and “competitive” divisions to accommodate all ages and skill levels of players.

At $250 per team for a 12-week, 24-game season (plus playoffs), softball is a great value, given teams of 10-15 players. Of course, players must provide their own equipment. And register quickly, because the fall season begins in October.

For senior players, Beverly Hills offers a senior softball league at Beverly Hills Community Park (997 W Roosevelt Road).

“I hadn’t been on the field in a few years,” says Larry Palentino, a former high school baseball player (“some decades ago,” he smiles). “But we get out and play at our own pace. It’s been a lot of fun. I don’t want to stop playing.”

Citrus County Parks and Recreation also offers co-ed recreational softball at Bicentennial Park (501 N Baseball Point, Crystal River). The league runs annually, but there is currently no set start date for the next campaign.

For more information: For Ocala Slow-Pitch, email Charles Dobson at [email protected] or call (352) 629-8389; Beverly Hills senior softball, (352) 465-0835; Citrus County Parks and Recreation, (352) 527-7540.

Squash: In The Open Air

It can be a challenge to track down a squash court—and it’s almost impossible to locate one in a public park. But at the hidden treasure of Citrus County’s Whispering Pines City Park (1700 Forest Drive, Inverness), you’ll find several courts, free of charge. (There’s a posted signup sheet for courts, if applicable.) Best of all, with a nod to steamy daytimes, the courts are lighted for evening play.

Tennis: Best Bets To Jump The Nets

Despite all the new riffs on racquet sports (hello, pickleball), the original continues to thrive: tennis.

Ocala’s premier tennis club is the Fort King Tennis Center (3301 SE Fort King St.). Their last formal league ran in June, but matches and doubles partners are always available by inquiring at the club or by posting a message on the Ft. King Tennis Center page on Facebook.

The YMCA of the Suncoast (4127 W Norvell Bryant Highway/CR 486, Lecanto) offers adult tennis leagues at varying times throughout the year, as do many other YMCAs in Citrus and Marion Counties.

For more information: Fort King Tennis Center, (352) 629-8453. YMCA of the Suncoast, (352) 500-9622. 

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