SRU pair grabs gold at state pickleball championship


gino and denny with pickleballl medals

Gino Cicconi and Denny Hemphill captured gold medals at the 2017 Pickleball Classic hosted by the city of Pittsburgh.

July 24, 2017

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Competition is in Gino Cicconi's blood. From timing his jogs around the neighborhood to shooting baskets against college students, the Slippery Rock University information technology technician has always enjoyed the thrill of a good rivalry, whether it's with himself or others.

As he got older, Cicconi realized that his body couldn't quite respond to the rigors of physical activity the same way it used to. But rather than "shut it down," he found another outlet to fulfill his cardiovascular workouts. It's an activity not only a little less taxing, but rather rewarding.

Joined by Dennis Hemphill, custodial work supervisor of facilities and planning, the pair have climbed their way to the pinnacle of Pennsylvania's pickleball scene.

The pair recently captured gold medals at the 2017 Pickleball Classic at the David Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh.

Sponsored by the Parkinson Foundation of Western Pennsylvania, which recognizes pickleball as a therapeutic sport for Parkinson's patients, the tournament attracted more than 400 players from across the county while raising money for the Foundation.

The tournament, which took place June 23-25, allowed contenders to compete in pairs against players of similar age and skill.

Pickleball combines elements of tennis, badminton and pingpong. Play involves a perforated plastic ball, a badminton net lowered to a height of 36 inches and pingpong-like paddles.

The game dates back to the summer of 1965 when former State Representative Joel Pritchard and friends Bill Bell and Barney McCallum invented the game as a way for their families to pass the time. Although some sources claim that the name "pickleball" was derived from the Pritchard family dog, Pickles, the name actually came from the term "pickle boat", referring to the last fishing boat to return with its catch.

Pickleball made its first appearance at SRU three years ago when Terri Flynn, alumni engagement board member, introduced the sport at the Aebersold Student Recreation Center and the Slippery Rock YMCA.

Cicconi was one of the first to pick up a racquet.

"It's really a feel-good sport for me, because it's something I can play, sweat and push myself while actually competing against a 20 year old again," he said. "I can play for four hours in one night. I can't jog or lift weights for that long, but I can do this."

According to Cicconi, Slippery Rock Township boasts approximately 60 pickleball players and the numbers keep growing.

"It took a while for pickleball to take off at the University, but as people jogged around the gym, some of them would stop to watch us play," Cicconi said. "Once we offered them a paddle, they were usually hooked."

Hemphill was one of the many faces to look on as Cicconi and teammates took over the badminton court. Two years ago, he too stopped to give it a try.

"I laughed at first because I had never heard of pickleball before," Hemphill commented. "Now I play almost six times a week. It's a very addicting game."

Hemphill and Cicconi soon registered as members of the USA Pickleball Association, participating in local tournaments at every opportunity. While the duo often practice and travel together, they usually match with different partners during competitions.

"It's only because we play at different skill levels," Cicconi explained. "In pickleball, your skills may range anywhere from a two, the most basic ranking, to a five, the most advanced."

During the Pickleball Classic, Cicconi paired off with Larry Barbiaux at a 4.5 skill level. The two faced a variety of courts made from wood, blacktop or cement and secured their gold medals on the second day of the tournament.

For Cicconi, who also brought home a gold medal in mixed doubles with partner Elaine Tonelli, the achievement added to his growing trophy case that now features 22 medals.

"He looks like Olympian Mark Spitz when he puts them all on," Hemphill said of Cicconi.

"What can I say? I hate losing more than I like winning," Cicconi said with a grin. "I was lucky. I have always found a good partner right from the start, which is really hard to do, and we just took off."

Hemphill and his partner Katie Ohler competed in the tournament's 3.0 skill level, suffering from a shaky start.

"The first game, we were losing 6-0," Hemphill said. "It really looked hopeless, but I kept reminding myself something that Gino had told me, 'I didn't come here to lose I came here to win.'"

Conjuring up repeated bursts of desperate energy, Hemphill and Ohler battled to turn the game around.

"I played like I've never played before," Hemphill said. "We ended up winning 11-7, and not only that, we won every single round all the way to the gold medal game. We never lost once."

For Hemphill, it was his sixth pickleball medal.

"There are some harsh competitors and intense battles out there. He was amazing, and I'm really proud of him," Cicconi said of his friend. "We both played really well and we expect to be back on the court again soon."

MEDIA CONTACT: Maizee Zaccone | 724.738.2091 |