Three years ago, it was unlikely that Temple senior middle blocker Zhen Jia Liu would ever play volleyball again. Training with the junior national team in China and hoping to earn a spot on her country’s Olympic squad, Liu suffered what was thought to be a career-ending knee injury.
Yet after two surgeries and almost 18 months of rehabilitation, Liu has become a standout for the Owls this season. How did this 6-foot, 2-inch talent from Shanghai, China, end up in North Philadelphia and defy the odds?
Bertucci remembers the first time he met Liu three years ago while touring with his team in China.
“I got introduced to her and I just kept looking up and up,” Bertucci said.
At the time of their chance encounter Liu had just suffered the devastating injury and her playing career was in serious doubt, but Bertucci jumped at the opportunity to recruit her.
“I just said, ‘Hey, let’s get that knee back in shape,'” he said.
When she arrived here, Liu began a two-year odyssey to rehabilitate her knee and get back to playing the game she had devoted 14 years of her life to.
Not only would the rehabilitation process itself prove to be difficult, Liu would also have to adjust to life in a new country. She admits the move to America was difficult at first.
“Everything is different here,” Liu said. “The language, the culture is very different.”
Liu played sparingly during the 2002 season, appearing in just 36 games. She was not even to close to 100 percent.
“We tried to use her the first year, but every time we did her knee would blow up,” Bertucci said.
As the problem persisted, it was soon discovered that Liu would need a second operation on her knee. This time, the surgery proved to be successful.
“They pretty much did everything,” Bertucci said of the Temple Medical staff. “It’s like a $6 million knee.”
After her second surgery, Liu was given another year to rehabilitate. Her health improved tremendously during the 2003 season.
“Everyone worked really hard to get her back in shape,” Bertucci said.
Liu appeared in 66 games last year, recording 52 kills, 112 digs and 9 blocks. However, the transition was still not complete.
“Physically she was ready; mentally she was not,” Bertucci said.
With the squad consisting mostly of seniors last season, Bertucci felt that he could rest Liu for another year. Liu admitted sitting for most of last season was hard.
“It was very difficult,” she said, “but I still needed more time to recover.”
After being used sparingly during her first two years, Liu has played a prominent role for the Owls this season.
Through 20 matches, Liu has compiled a team-leading 302 kills while playing in 75 games. She currently ranks in the top ten in both kills and points in the Atlantic Ten.
“It’s critical for us to have her on the court all the time,” Bertucci said. “As she continues to get stronger, she’s just going to get better.”
Although she still has a year of eligibility left, Bertucci sees potential for Liu to continue her volleyball career once she graduates.
“My dream for her would be to get her degree here, get her knee as close to a 100 percent as possible, and go back to China or Italy and play for a pro team there,” Bertucci said.
Luckily for him, the talent keeps coming as Temple continues to recruit players from China. Two players from the Shanghai Sports College, which Liu attended before coming to Temple, are already having an impact. Freshman outside-hitter Ying Sun Ling is second on the team in assists and third in kills, whilesophomore defensive specialist Yan Liu are already making an impact this season.
“They’re coming along very well,” Bertucci said. “They’re very good players and will continue to get better as the American kids learn to work better with the Chinese kids.”
Travis Clyons can be reached at email@example.com.