SANDY When Jake Daniel told his friends he was playing club volleyball, they had a question for him.
"They found out we mostly practiced with girls, and they asked, 'Do you get to wear spandex, too?"' the 15-year-old middle hitter said with a laugh.
His teammate, Christian "Swish" Wiscombe, smiled and admitted, "There is a little teasing sometimes."
But it's worth it for the boys who make up the Club Utah 16-and-under team because these boys have seen what's possible with volleyball. They all come from volleyball families and, well, if there is a volleyball gene, they have it. What they possess, for sure, is an understanding and respect for a game that is not known as a men's sport in Utah.
"What I want (my son) to have is a big picture of volleyball," said one of the team's coaches, Mike Daniel, who also coaches the Salt Lake Community College women's team as well as a girls Club Utah team. "This is a real sport. I want him to see this."
This is the 2008 USA Junior Olympic Volleyball Championships, which are under way at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy. On Saturday, the 18-year-old teams finished their tournament, and on Sunday the 17-year-olds started theirs. For a volleyball aficionado, it is heaven even if the matches don't always finish in their favor.
"Most of the teams we've played have played somewhere between 10 and 15 tournaments as a pre-cursor for this, and they've been playing together for years as established programs," said the squad's other coach, Jim Bendtschneider. "We're not an established program."
In fact, while every member of the Club Utah 16s team has played volleyball because of their parents and/or siblings, the actual team just formed in anticipation of the national tournament being held in Utah. Both coaches are involved in programs that are loosely affiliated with high school communities although they must use city names to identify themselves, not the names of the high schools they attend and say that, ever so slowly, the perception of men's volleyball is changing.
"It is growing," said Mike Daniel, who is an accomplished player himself. "It's a lot bigger than it was three years ago."
And while individuals are seduced by the sport, it has yet to gain widespread support.
"We've got one of the best teams in the country at BYU, and we have zero high schools that have it as a sport," Mike Daniel said. In fact, most high schools are unwilling to allow volleyball teams, even those made up of the school's students, to use the gym without a rental fee.
"For it to work here, we need to have more support from the administration of schools," Mike Daniel said. "They need to give us some gym time ... and then work on making it a sanctioned sport for boys."
Meanwhile, club teams have to rely on the good will of community centers or local churches. Bendschneider said they hold most of their practices at a church house because it is the only consistent gym they can use.
The players of Club Utah don't feel like pioneers, and in fact, they just laugh when it's suggested. Instead, they just enjoy playing a sport they've grown up around on a stage that challenges them. And Club Utah, halfway through the tournament, has had the most success of any local team. It finished with a record of 5-8 and took several of those losses to three games.
"I love the competition," said Jake Daniel. Adds Chris Teuscher, "Yeah, that's the best part."
The coaches are enjoying the tournament as much as the players, in part because they know just how lucky they are to be participating in an event like this."This is awesome," Bendschneider said. "This is a lot of fun. Just for our boys to have this experience."