ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Erma and Wes Pankratz make no bones about it. They intend to shuffle their way through their retirement years.
In their case, “shuffling” has nothing to do with taking smaller steps at a slower gait. This spry Hillsboro couple have a passion for a sport they hardly knew existed before they decided to retire from farming eight years ago.
Meet the shuffleboard queen and king of Kansas.
The Pankratzes could lay claim to the unofficial title after successfully defending their shuffleboard titles at the Salina Senior Games last month.
For the second year in a row, Erma won first place among women in her age division (70-74) while Wes won the title among men 75-79 years. The couple also paired up to win consecutive mixed titles for the 70-74 division.
For the Pankratzes, shuffleboard has become much more than a leisurely pastime.
“I like the competition,” Erma admitted. “It’s funny-usually, under pressure you don’t play too well. But it seems like I do. When it gets right down to it, I know I’ve got to get that (disc) off of there and leave mine on.”
Wes insists his wife is the better player of the two.
“She used to shoot so hard three or four years ago,” he said. “Then we tried to talk her into not shooting so hard, so after you knock the other one off, yours stays on so he has something to hit.
“Now that she does that, she shoots a lot better. She’s really improved. I’m really proud of her.”
The Pankratzes were introduced to the game eight winters ago when they first traveled to South Texas for a five-month stay.
“After two or three years, we started shuffling just for fun,” Erma said. “Then we found out there was strategy to it and how to play. You don’t just put a score on, you knock the other guy off.”
Added Wes with a smile, “Defense is the name of the game.”
The Pankratzes began taking the sport more seriously about three years ago.
“We started winning trophies and then we thought, ‘Oh boy, what fun,'” Erma said.
The mobile home park the Pankratzes first lived in didn’t have many shuffleboard courts or players. So they began associating with a park that was better equipped.
“They took us on as orphans,” Wes said. “Our park didn’t even belong to the Texas Shuffleboard Association. So we played under their name until now. Now we’re going to be living in that park this winter.”
Tournaments are held every weekend and each one attracts 100 to 150 two-player teams for singles and doubles play.
Erma has won the park title in her division the past two winters.
The Pankratzes credit a lot of their improvement to Clarence DeTurk, a local professional who travels the world to play in shuffleboard tournaments.
“He taught us strategy and how to shuffle,” Wes said.
“It just grows on you,” Erma added.
The Pankratzes heard about the Salina Senior Games three years ago through a newsletter for seniors.
“We called in right away saying we wanted to get in, but the deadline had passed,” Erma said. “So we said, ‘Next year send us some stuff on it.’ Last year they did, we entered and took home the four golds-and then this year again.”
The Pankratzes are enthused about the Salina Senior Games not just because of their success there, but because they believe the event could be fun for many other local seniors. Besides shuffleboard, the games include competition in golf, billiards, bowling, basketball, cycling, distance running and walking, tennis, table tennis, racquetball and horseshoes.
At last month’s games, Ivan Wiebert of Hillsboro placed second in age 70-74 men’s billiards.
“I’m sure a lot of seniors around here could find something they’d enjoy,” Erma said.
The competition is only one component of the event.
“You get a free breakfast, then you shuffle, then you get a free banquet supper, then you have entertainment,” Wes said. “All that for $15. And you get a shirt.”
By winning their division at Salina, the Pankratzes qualified for the national shuffleboard tournament in Florida. But they’re not planning to move on.
“If we went to the nationals, they’d have a lot of those Texas experts shuffling there,” Wes said. “We wouldn’t have a chance anyhow.”
They said they don’t plan to pursue the sport beyond their current involvement in South Texas and the Salina Senior Games.
“Then we’d get too high-uppity,” Erma said with a laugh.
But the Pankratzes would like to see shuffleboard catch on among more area seniors.
“It’s not strenuous,” Erma said. “It’s an easy game. If you’re not strong, all you have to do is shove that thing real easy.”
“When you’re done shooting your four (discs) down, you sit down and rest while the others push it back,” he said. “You always get to sit down in between. That’s what I like about it. In other sports you can’t do that.”
Because of harsh winter weather, shuffleboard courts in Kansas would have to be indoors, they said.
“I’d like to see Hillsboro have some,” Erma said. “I think we could get older people to join. The Senior Center really isn’t big enough. Maybe in the schools. But I don’t know how you’d go about doing that. It would cost money again.”
In the meantime, the Pankratzes plan to shuffle full speed ahead. They like the motto of the Salina Senior Games: “You don’t stop playing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop playing.”
Don’t expect those two to be growing old anytime soon.