In 2012 the seeds were planted for what now has become the Arizona Pickleball Players League (APPL). Dave Zapatka called his good friend Greg Mather (who is now president and founder of APPL). Dave had a friend in Fountain Hills trying to gather players from across the valley for competitive pickleball in Fountain Hills. Greg and Dave quickly accepted the offer as they were often frustrated playing the same group of people in their area. Everyone knew everyone else’s game and what to expect when they played against each other. So, they rounded up a few other guys and headed for Fountain Hills. An afternoon of exhilarating pickleball ensued. They experienced players with different techniques and play styles with a social and competitive balance that they hadn’t encountered before.
On the way back from the excellent play, Greg thought players at other developing pickleball clubs must be experiencing the same frustrations with local play. Greg had league experience running a local Team Tennis league and was a co-captain for a successful USTA league tennis team. Other pickleball players would certainly enjoy playing people at other clubs much like players in the tennis league did. Discussions with other local pickleball clubs confirmed that suspicion. Shortly after, the East Valley Interclub League (EVIL) was formed. EVIL started out as a men’s league with teams from Ahwatukee (ARC), Sun Lakes Cottonwood, Sun Lakes IronOaks, Solera and Trilogy.
EVIL Establishes Roots
After EVIL’s first season, other communities with developing pickleball programs expressed interest in joining EVIL. Also, a women’s division was also requested to be included in EVIL. As a result, the second season kicked off with 6 men’s teams and 5 women’s teams. The league continued to grow with teams from other communities and cities in the Phoenix Metro East Valley participating. Season 4 added a mixed doubles division and by Season 5 there were 5 teams competing in mixed doubles. Also in Season 5 the divisions were separated into experienced and beginner skill levels to balance the competitive playing field. EVIL has grown every year since its inception and in Season 8 had 34 teams and over 400 players participating.
The APPL Pilot Branches from EVIL
So where does APPL come in? As EVIL continued to grow, more pickleball players became interested in team-based league pickleball. EVIL remained a 50+ interclub league which required you to be 50+ in age and a member of a pickleball club. But, younger players and players who didn’t belong to a community or club were interested in league play. At the same time, pickleball players were frustrated with the existing tournament structure. It was harder to get into tournaments, expensive, required a long commute, and often required a full day to play only a few matches. It became clear. EVIL needed to grow beyond just an East Valley Interclub League.
Greg had considerable experience with USTA’s tennis league format where teams compete locally all the way up to nationally with a national finals. He felt it was crazy not to have a similar offering for pickleball players. In 2019 a small core team was formed and the Arizona Pickleball Players League was piloted. The pilot (called the Salad League) consisted of 6 men’s teams competing in a 4.5/5.0 skill group. Each team had rosters of 10 to 14 players from which 6 would play on match day. During the three month pilot several women players often observed and expressed an interest in forming a women’s division. It was happening the same way EVIL happened 7 years earlier but more quickly.
APPL Branches Out
Feedback after completion of the APPL pilot was extremely positive. Not long after the pilot ended Greg was contacted by a group in Casa Grande wanting to bring an “EVIL like” format to Casa Grande communities. Greg explained the APPL format and the intent to expand throughout Arizona and ultimately nationally. Casa Grande became a part of APPL and two regions were defined. The Casa Grande region with one regional league (SAPPL) and the East Valley Region with two regional leagues (EVIL and Red APPL) were formed. EVIL participation rules remained intact. Red APPL required participants to be 18+ in age with no restriction of being a member of a club. In other words anyone could form a team in a skill group and compete in the league.
APPL Establishes Solid Roots
APPL was incorporated in late 2019 as a nonprofit corporation with the following mission statement: To provide infrastructure and leadership for the operation and expansion of amateur competitive team-based pickleball for men and women throughout the state of Arizona. The inaugural season kicked off in 2020 after a tremendous amount of work by a dedicated and all volunteer APPL Core team. The first regional playoffs between winners of the Casa Grande and the East Valley skill groups was scheduled to occur in late March. Unfortunately, our national health priorities required cancellation of what was to be an exciting and fun event.
APPL’s Season 2021 looked to be even more exciting with expansion into the Tucson and Phoenix West Valley areas. Adding these two additional regions (Southern and West Valley) brought the total to four regions. Skill group winners in each region competed for the APPL State Championship at the end of the season. Other states expressed interest in the APPL format and developing team-based league pickleball in their areas. It was beginning to look like in the near future the “A” in APPL would remain but stand for “America”.
APPL Explodes in 2022
APPL’s Season 2022 experienced phenomenal growth. Strong word of mouth and the addition of Mixed Doubles in the Southern and West Valley regions generated player interest from the newer regions. APPL participation grew to over 300 teams and 3700 players throughout Arizona. The 2022 season concluded with three full days of State Championship playoff matches. Regional 6-player team champions from Southern Arizona, Casa Grande, East Phoenix Valley and West Phoenix Valley in Women’s, Men’s and Mixed Division skill levels from 2.5 through 4.5/5.0 all competed for the state championship titles.
Recently, APPL opened up its fifth region, the White Mountain Region. Now players spending their summers in the cooler Arizona high country will enjoy team-based pickleball competition in the summer months. Interest from other states and cities also continued to grow resulting in six states currently using or preparing to enjoy APPL’s unique team-based league format.
The APPL Core
APPL’s core team of dedicated volunteers has grown as well over the past ten years. What started out as a “one man show” effort now has the support of 20 core team members who commit their time and effort to bring team-based league pickleball throughout the state.