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Geoffrey McAllister, Deseret News
Coach Bree Riet, center left, encourages members of her team, the IMVBC 16s, as they play in the 2008 USA Junior Olympic Championships at the South Towne Exposition Center in Sandy Thursday.

SANDY — Ammon Packer and Caleb Johnson have tried in vain to persuade their friends to play club volleyball with them.

"They say volleyball is a sissy sport," said Packer, 14, from Pleasant Grove. "I want to slap them when they say that."

His teammate suggests a better punishment for their ignorance.

"Let them play the Puerto Rican team," said Caleb Johnson, 16, who attends Jordan High. Then they burst into laughter as they know just what kind of beating the Puerto Rican 16s club team is capable of delivering. They faced the squad in their first real match as a team as part of pool play during the 2008 USA Volleyball's Boys Junior Olympic Volleyball Tournament underway at the South Town Expo this week. The tournament will feature 9,000 student athletes and is expected to pump some $25 million into Utah's economy.

It can be an intimidating stage for a first performance.

"Actually, for most of them, it's the first time they've played organized volleyball," said their coach, Bree Riet, who played volleyball at Westminster. Up until this week, the IMVBC has only scrimmaged against various girls teams.

"They've worked really hard, but they had a lot to learn," said Riet. "We've spent a lot of time just learning positions, learning rotations because most of them have never played."

The IMVBC took fourth in their pool but accomplished the one goal coach Riet had for them in their first matches.

"I am just hoping they have a really good experience and want to come back next year," she said. "I'm hoping they also tell their friends and maybe we can have enough for two traveling teams."

Two other Utah clubs played today with Twin Peaks 18s team finishing fourth in their pool and Club Utah's 16s team finishing third. Club Utah was the only Utah team to earn a win in Thursday's pool play. All of the teams play in the elimination round today at as the tournament continues through July 9.

Riet said she was worried about how the boys, who range in age from 11 years old to 16, would do against such high-level competition.

"They were pretty nervous," she said. "But things went a lot better than I thought they would. I guess it just comes down to being athletic."

She said one of the best moments was when Seilli Wilson, who is just 11, entered the game and made "an awesome save."

Johnson and Packer said despite finishing fourth, they enjoyed the experience very much.

"I'm actually better at other sports, but I like to play it because it's fun," said Johnson, who just started playing six months ago. The players see the biggest obstacle to success being committed teammates. And while they've tried to recruit friends, it's difficult to convince them to try something new, when they have played other sports since they were young.

Riet and other Utah coaches hope hosting the national tournament will expose teens, parents and coaches to what's possible in volleyball.

"We've been trying to get a team together for a few years," Riet said. "With the (Junior Olympic) tournament being here, it seemed like an ample opportunity to try and start something in Utah. Maybe light a fire under them ... It's hard for them to be passionate about volleyball because they really haven't played it very long."

Both Packer and Johnson said that the fact that Utah was hosting the Junior Olympic Championships convinced them to commit to a sport they love but don't get a chance to play very often.

"I don't think I would have done it if it wasn't in Utah," said Packer. "It's too expensive to travel."

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