Boys volleyball: Decorated Legacy junior doing his part to help grow the game

Apr. 11—BROOMFIELD — At the center of Thornton High School's three-set win over Centaurus in boys' volleyball on Thursday night, the state's biggest star since the sport was sanctioned five years ago is eager to do his part to help grow its popularity.

"I want to leave the best legacy possible," said Legacy High School junior Rafa Urbina, who has played for Thornton — the Adams 12 district team — since the sport began play under the Colorado High School Activities Association umbrella in 2021. "I love representing my state and I want to keep growing the game here."

Approved in 2019, boys' volleyball has seen an influx of teams and participants since its inaugural season three years ago. And a nationally renowned player like Urbina — who seems on track to make a run at the Olympic team for the 2028 Summer Games — could only help to further that in the coming years.

"He's probably the strongest player I've ever seen or coached," said Thornton coach Missy Oller, who noted that she has coached either girls' or boys' volleyball for the past 15 years. "We're likely going to see Rafa in the Olympics. That's the trajectory he's on."

Urbina fits the bill of how you'd imagine any star athlete. Especially in football, where the 6-foot-6 setter is akin to a five-star quarterback, per Oller.

"Not only does his skill make a big difference, but his leadership," she explained. "His natural leadership, great court awareness and helps build the guys up. He is touching the ball every (point). He's controlling the pace and helping his teammates grow. He's invaluable."

Urbina is already committed to UCLA: The mecca of the men's college game.

The Bruins have won an NCAA-most 20 national titles — 15 more than anybody else — and he is the first player from Colorado to join the program.

Their longtime head coach, John Speraw, meanwhile, also serves as the U.S. Men's National Team coach.

"I'll be getting the best coaching there is in the States," Urbina said. "And it will give me a good boost to what my goals are, which is to play pro overseas, and for the actual (U.S.) national team."

Urbina will get a taste of representing the U.S. next month.

Last week, he was one of 20 players from around the country — and the only from Colorado — to be named to USA Volleyball's under-age 19 team. He will train in Anaheim, California, from May 3-11 before 12 are chosen to go to Puerto Rico for the U19 NORCECA Continental Championship (May 12-20). The tournament includes countries from North America, Central America and the Caribbean, and it is a qualifier for the 2025 Men's World Championships.

There is a downside to it, though. His time with Team USA coincides with CHSAA's boys' volleyball postseason, which runs early next month and into the state championship tournament from May 9-11. Thornton is expected to be among the title contenders, moving to 11-1 on the year after they dominated Centaurus (3-9) 25-12, 25-12, 25-10 at Legacy High School.

"This year is looking really promising, so it's just unfortunate because this is our year to win," Urbina said, sighing. "I'm bummed. But our backup (setter) has been doing great."

Urbina is the son of parents who fell in love while playing volleyball in college (his mother at the University of Rhode Island, his dad at New York City College). He's the younger brother of Alexandra Urbina, who was a star girls' player at Legacy before graduating in 2023. She's now playing at Santa Clara University.

In his team's win against the Warriors, he set up just about every big blast and scoring point, racking up more than 20 assists before he sat for the third set, giving way to his backup, Ethan Xiong.

Over the coming weeks, Urbina said he'll do what he can to support and prepare Xiong for his upcoming absence. It's just one more way he's doing his part to pass along the game.

"This sport is overlooked in our state because it's so new in our high schools," Urbina said. "I want to be the first push to be like, 'Look, this is a legit sport.' I want it to be a top-five sport in the country in a few years. In Europe, it's such a popular sport. And I want it to be here."