Park Hye-jin’s return was worth the wait…Heungkuk Life regains top spot

Heungkuk Life setter Park Hye-jin (21) is back. The team regained first place.

Heungkuk Life defeated IBK Sangsan Bank 3-2 (26-24 22-25 25-18 23-25 18-16) in a home match in the third round of the Dodram 2023-2024 V League Women’s Division at Samsan World Gymnasium in Incheon on Thursday. Heungkuk Life regained first place with a 13-2 record (35 points). They moved ahead of Hyundai E&C (11-4-2), which has the same number of points. IBK is in fourth place with 8 wins and 8 losses (23 points). It has more wins than Jung Kwanjang (7 W-8 L-5th).

There was good news at Heungkuk Life. Park Hye-jin is back. The injury was quite serious and the rehabilitation was long. After tearing the cartilage in her right knee when she was first selected for the VNL last year, Park went under the knife in October, and after more than a year of rehabilitation, she took the court again today. In addition to her game management, the 177-centimeter setter also showed off her scoring prowess (five points and three blocks).

Park put the ball up at the right time. In the first set, she attempted nine running sets (tosses with no or one opposing blocker) and converted five attacks. In the second set, the team was in the middle of the game until Park Hye-jin came in and quickly closed the gap. The team’s main scorers didn’t perform as well as expected on the day, with Kim Yeon-kyung hitting below 50% in both attack percentage and efficiency in sets one and two, and Yelena hitting in the low teens until set three, but the team was able to spread the ball around evenly between Kim Soo-ji, Lee Ju-ah, Kim Mi-yeon, and Reina to keep the lead.

In the third set, even Kim Yeon-kyung came to life. Park Hye-jin made sure that she was able to hit her opponent with back-to-back shots from the front row or hit comfortably from the back row, but she didn’t rely too much on Kim Yeon-kyung alone, utilizing Yelena once again to help boost her offense. With her newfound confidence, Yelena racked up blocks (1) and serves (2) in the third set. Despite dropping the fourth set in a close contest, Heungkuk Life had the strength to take the fifth set as Kim Yeon-kyung came alive and started to gel.

Heungkuk Life has one less setter to worry about. Initially, Park Hye-jin had reserved the starting spot last season. When original setter Lee Da-young unexpectedly left the team, Park was forced to play full-time in 2021-2022, and she operated well for a young player. It was clear why some viewed her as a “steal” – a fifth-round pick in the 2020-2021 draft. The second-year pro’s 7.156 sets per set in 29 matches was the most on the team (9th).

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