‘Block Queen’ Yang Hyo-jin (35, Hyundai E&C) has battled back from injury to help Hyundai E&C move closer to winning the best-of-five championship series.

Yang started the first game of the 2023-24 Dodram V League Women’s Championship against Heungkuk Life on Sunday at Suwon Indoor Gymnasium and recorded 16 points, including five blocks, to lead Hyundai E&C to a 3-2 (18-25, 14-25, 25-20, 25-20, 16-14) set victory.

Yang suffered a neck injury at the end of the regular season. It was a herniated disk. She rested without touching the ball during the playoffs (POs), but it was an injury that was never fully healed. “I also felt (at the end of the regular season) that (Yang) had a problem with her body,” said middle blocker Lee Da-hyun, who along with Yang leads Hyundai E&C’s net domination. I was like, ‘I think I need to attack more.

Hyojin Yang put on a first-set show. At 2-5, she attacked openly, and at 7-11, she scored on a ball that her opponent’s reception faltered and she hit right at it. At 9-14, she teamed up with setter Kim Dain for a fast-break point.

In the second set, however, the movement slowed down. The team’s open attacking power dropped, and they made consecutive errors at 2-3 and 5-7. At 5-10, they lost a net touch while blocking. Hyundai E&C dropped both sets 1-2.

Yang Hyo-jin led Hyundai E&C’s comeback in the third set, 25-20, with four points, including two blocks. She blocked open attacks from Willow Johnson at 7-5 and Reina Tokoku at 18-16.

In the fateful fifth set, Yang Hyo-jin fended off Reina’s attacks at 4-7 and 5-8, when she was down by three points, to set the stage for the comeback. HMC fought back with a steady stream of points from main gun Basoko Moma, eventually forcing a deuce tiebreak. After a spiked service ace from Moma that defeated Kim Yeon-kyung’s reception, the opponent’s error came out to end the intense match.

“I didn’t want to use the injury as an excuse, but I didn’t feel like I wanted to float higher and move faster,” Yang reflected after the match about her physical condition in the first and second sets.

She saw the sparkle in her teammates’ eyes as she was on the brink, and she calmed herself down. “To win even one set, we encouraged each other, saying, ‘Let’s take a breath, let’s go for it,’ and I think I got better in many ways, such as getting to my opponent’s mark and serving well,” she said.

Yang last won a championship in 2015-16. In the 2019-20 and 2021-22 seasons, Hyundai E&C was either at or near the top of the standings, but the pandemic caused the regular season to end early and the postseason (PS) to be canceled, preventing them from challenging for the title.

“We didn’t win when we needed to win,” Yang said. So, win or lose, I made a mental note to myself, ‘Let’s enjoy the championship at least once. I’m happy to be in first place in the regular season, and I’m happy to be playing in the championship and have a chance to win,” she smiled.

This season’s championship was headlined by the matchup between Yang Hyo-jin and Kim Yeon-kyung (Heungkuk Life), the “volleyball empress” who has led the Korean women’s national team for more than a decade. “Personally, I don’t think it’s a battle between me and her (Kim). All the players on our team played well to get here. I don’t think I need to put any extra pressure on myself. Today’s first game convinced me that it’s important to stop thinking ‘I can win’ and just think about what we can do and how we can do it,” she said.


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