A Phenom Rises in Long Beach

Those who walk the hallways at Long Beach Wilson High should realize they could be rubbing elbows with a future Sports Illustrated cover girl.

Cynthia Barboza is the No. 1 junior girls' volleyball player in America. At 16, she started four of six matches for the U.S. team that won the bronze medal at the Pan American Games last summer. She was four years younger than her next oldest teammate.

Her coach at Wilson, Susan Pescar, said, "There are people who say she's going to be the best volleyball player this country has seen."

Barboza, who's 6 feet and has a 4.0 grade-point average, shrugs off the predictions of greatness.

"I'm definitely not unbelievable yet," she said. "Far from it."

She had to carry the ball bag on the plane trip to the Dominican Republic and isn't ready to break into the starting lineup of the 2004 Olympic team, but as a high school player, she's near the top of any list.

She was The Times' player of the year as a sophomore, leading her team to a runner-up finish in the state Division I playoffs. This season, she has helped Wilson reach the semifinals of the Southern Section Division I-AA playoffs. The Bruins will play host to Anaheim Esperanza tonight.

She jumps so high and so quickly that trying to block her shot sometimes is impossible.

"She has an innate ability what to do with the ball and her swing is very natural," Pescar said. "She just pops off the ground."

In the bronze-medal match against Brazil, Barboza had nine kills and two blocks. Not bad for someone who had yet to start her junior year. She has been labeled a phenom, similar to Freddy Adu in soccer and LeBron James in basketball.

Because of her academic and volleyball excellence, Barboza will be able to pick any college in the nation. All the top schools are recruiting her and holding their breath, but no final decision is expected any time soon.

Barboza knows her summer experience made her a better player because she competed with and against players older, stronger and wiser.

"I got the chance to learn from players who have the mental game figured out," she said. "It was a good environment to see how mature players really play. I had to fight every day to get playing time. I had to be at the top of my game to even see the court."

Barboza started playing volleyball when she was 11.

"I just went to a Long Beach State game and kind of fell in love with the sport," she said. "I don't mind missing my summers at home by the beach for going and playing in Colorado [at the Olympic training center] because I love playing."

Pescar said she believes Barboza, who plays outside hitter, will have the chance to play in "three or four Olympics" by the time her volleyball career has ended.

"She's pretty amazing," Pescar said.

As much as sending a ball crashing to the floor might excite fans, Barboza's favorite moment in volleyball is when she's playing defense.

"Making one of those crazy one-arm digs, running to the back of the gym, diving and sprawling all out," she said. "That's the fun stuff."

Blessed with athletic genes and the work ethic to reach a higher level, Barboza is one of America's brightest hopes for Olympic success.

"I'm just going to try to keep getting better and see how far I can go," she said. "Who knows, I might get sick of the sport at age 20 and quit, but I doubt that."


Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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