This article appears in the October/November 2004 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
In a way, it's not shocking that Cynthia Barboza rates boxing as her favorite sport to watch.
Sure, this is the same girl who counts silky R&B singer Lauryn Hill as her favorite musical artist and who lists ultra-hip fashion label Miss Sixty as her preferred clothing line. Not for the status, mind you, but because "they make pants long enough to fit me."
No matter. Boxing presented instant appeal for the Long Beach Wilson senior outside hitter. Because beneath a calm, relentlessly self-critiquing and thoughtful exterior lurks a savage, net-crashing warrior — who just happens to be the best high school volleyball player in America.
"Becoming a boxing fan happened by accident, I guess," says the 6-foot-1 Barboza, 17, who was named the Gatorade National High School Volleyball Player of the Year last season and served as an alternate on this summer's U.S. Olympic volleyball team. "I got to know some of the guys on the U.S. National Team while I was at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado in the summer of 2003. When we went to the Pan American Games (in the Dominican Republic) that year, we went to see them box. Now I really want to see more."
It's no surprise Barboza relates to the one-on-one combat despite being a team-sport athlete. After all, she's the most highly regarded high school player in the country and one of the world's brightest young stars.
As a result, she often feels like all eyes are on her when she takes the court. Turns out, she's right.
"When she gets that kind of attention, she is so embarrassed," says Long Beach Wilson fifth-year head volleyball coach Susan Pescar, 55, who entered this season with a career record of 114-25. "She was playing with the U.S. National Team at the 2004 Pan Am Cup in Mexico and little Mexican kids were running up to her shouting ‘Barboza! Barboza!' and stroking her arms and touching her hair and asking her to sign stuff. She had this look on her face like, ‘I can't believe I'm doing this.' Almost like her instinct was to walk away because she couldn't possibly deserve that kind of attention."
Pescar will never forget a road game Barboza was dominating during her sophomore year. When the opposing middle blocker finally stuffed Barboza, her home gym erupted and the girl celebrated like she'd won the lottery.
"Cynthia didn't get it," recalls Pescar. "That's a story that girl will tell her kids when they're watching Cynthia on TV someday. I've since explained to her, ‘It doesn't matter if you don't believe you deserve someone clamoring for your autograph. You can make somebody's day. You're that big a deal to them.' People sometimes misunderstand her. It's easy to confuse extraordinary shyness with arrogance. Once upon a time, she did not know what to do in response to recognition. She's starting to understand that now. She certainly signs anything anyone puts in front of her and poses for so many pictures that she's late to the team bus."
But for every ounce of adoration she indulges, Barboza is hard on herself by equal measure. And then some.
Yes, she was the only high schooler invited to try out for this year's Olympic volleyball team (she made the 18-member U.S. National Team but was left as an Olympic alternate when the final Athens roster was cut to 12). And yes, last season she became the first junior to ever capture Gatorade's top volleyball honor.
But Cynthia Barboza readily admits without a sliver of doubt in her voice that she's not much of a player yet. And she means it.
"I have a horrible problem of being a brutal critic of myself," says Barboza, who will attend Stanford on a volleyball scholarship next year. "Keeping in perspective the fact that this is just a game is huge for me. When I play, the people who come out to watch want to see a show. I have to stay focused on getting better. As soon as I let other people put pressure on me, that's when this game isn't fun."
Like it or not, Barboza is a showcase player.
Marvelously athletic, tactically savvy and dive-all-over-the-floor gritty, Barboza is a pure finisher who averaged 20 kills and 1.51 blocks per match last season during Wilson's 25-5 run to its second straight Moore League title and the CIF Southern Section Division I-AA semifinals. That followed averages of 24 kills and 4.6 blocks per match as a sophomore and 15 kills and 4.5 blocks as a freshman.
But nothing could compare to her first eight months of 2004, when she lived and trained at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado.
"It helped me beyond description as far as maturing mentally as a player," says Barboza, a three-time All-CIF selection whose block totals dipped as a junior when teams started avoiding her at the net. "The composure of those players when things aren't going their way is incredible."
Barboza showed impressive composure of her own in Colorado, completing her required high school courses independently by e-mail correspondence.
"That level of self-discipline was ridiculously demanding," says Barboza, who teamed with Wilson junior setter Stephanie Barry for a fifth-place finish at September's Under-18 Beach Volleyball World Championships in Italy. "I didn't have the luxury of trial and error because I had to keep my grades up for Stanford (she owned a 4.0 GPA entering this year). It was hard to figure out how to manage my time. I eventually had to cut out napping between practices, which was huge because I especially like to nap when I'm practicing eight hours a day."
Between training with the nation's best in Colorado and jetting off to Italy to play on the beach, some might question how focused Barboza could possibly be on her final scholastic season. But she wasted no time answering that question this fall.
"She came into the first meeting this year as a senior and a captain and said, ‘I'll do anything I can to help, and if there's something you can do to help me, please do it,'" says Pescar. "It's not a letdown at all to go back to her high school season. She wants to go out on top."
Of course, the way Pescar sees it, no matter how Barboza's high school career ends, it will represent a new beginning for the nation's fastest-rising volleyball star.
"We'll see her in the Olympics for a long time to come both indoors and, eventually, on the beach," says Pescar. "I think the beach is what she ultimately wants to do, but we'll be hearing about her for a lot of years to come."