Park smiles on court for first time in 16 months as she shakes off injury ghosts. Heungkuk Life setter Park Hye-jin (21) helped her team win in her comeback match.
Heungkuk Life won the third round of the Dodram 2023-2024 V-League Women’s Division 3 against IBK IBK on Thursday with a set score of 3-2 (26-24, 22-25, 25-18, 23-25, 18-16) at Samsan Gymnasium in Incheon. With the win, Heungkuk Life moved back into first place, ahead of Hyundai E&C.
Heungkuk Life was without their starting setter Lee Won-jung for the match. Due to COVID-19, head coach Marcello Abondanza opted to start Park Hye-jin instead of Kim Da-sol. Even club officials were surprised to see Park start. It was her first start of the season.
Park Hye-jin was drafted by Heungkuk Life with the fifth overall pick in the 2020 first round. In her second year as a professional, she appeared in 29 games in the 2021-22 season. She grew up playing alongside Kim Dae-sol. He was also called up to the national team, although he was unable to play due to COVID-19. He was expected to play a lot in the 2022-23 season. However, just before the start of the season, he underwent surgery for a cartilage tear in his right knee and was sidelined for the entire season.
She spent four months at home, working out privately, and only rejoined the team in March of this year. She joined the team in full training before the tournament began. However, she didn’t play a game until the third round, when she suddenly got her chance. Despite her long absence, Park played well in the match. Despite being down 2-1 in the fourth set and having the more experienced Kim Dae-sol on the court in the fifth set, she was able to greet her fans with a smile as the team eventually won.
“I hadn’t played for a long time and I thought, ‘I’m done,'” Park said. “The coach didn’t tell me before the match. But I practiced a lot for a few days beforehand. When I heard that I was going to start, I thought, ‘I have to be confident.'” She also said, “I cried after the game today, but I held it together. I was so happy.”
Park Hye-jin found it a bit difficult against foreign player Yelena on the day. However, she had a good match with Kim Yeon-kyung. Kim made a season-high five back attacks. She also used the center attack whenever she could. Park Hye-jin said, “I was actually worried because I hadn’t played with my sisters for a long time. There were some things that clicked. The coach always tells the setters to use a lot of quick attacks and back attacks, so we did.”
During the match, Kim approached Park and talked to her about various things. Coach Abondanza also chatted with her from time to time. “She told me a lot of technical things and told me to be confident when I wasn’t,” Park said. She also told me to cheer for my other sisters,” Park said, adding that in the fifth set in the warm-up zone, “I just wanted to win.”
Park Hye-jin is one of the few long (1.77 meters) setters in Korea. On this day, she also had three blocks and scored five points. Park said, “Actually, I didn’t block well in practice. I wanted to be more aggressive because I think being a long setter is an advantage.”
After a tough rehabilitation period, Park became stronger: “I watched every single volleyball. At first, I thought it was a shame that I wasn’t there, and I focused on recovering and coming back as soon as possible.” “I didn’t cry during rehabilitation, but I cried a lot before the surgery,” she said. “It was my first surgery. My sisters who went through rehab told me a lot, and my teachers and teammates encouraged me. My family comforted me while I was at home,” she said.
It’s only one match, but Park’s leap forward is a big boost for Heungkuk Life, which has been struggling with setters. Coach Abondanza said, “She did a good job after being away from the court for 14 months. I think today’s match and victory were valuable.” Park Hye-jin said, “Today’s game was about a 7 out of 10. I blocked actively, and I had good communication with the attackers. I will practice more and show you how I play.”