Heo returns after serving country
Forward leads Amherst in scoring, to undefeated start
Four years ago, Jae Heo was having the time of his life as a freshman men’s soccer player for Amherst.
The native of Changwon, South Korea, made an immediate impact on the field as the Lord Jeffs’ second-leading scorer, and he was well-liked by his teammates because of his great energy and infectious personality.
“The first year at Amherst was amazing coming out of high school,” Heo said. “It was a great level of soccer, and we had a great freshmen class and I did everything with the team.”
But after that first year, Heo had some bad news to break to his teammates. Like every South Korean over the age of 18, Heo was required to serve two years in the military. While it was up to Heo when he would serve, he decided the best time was after his freshman year. So, he took a hiatus from his time as a student-athlete at Amherst, and headed back to his home country to fulfill his duty.
“I found out that a lot of Korean kids that study abroad do it after their first year of college because they want to start their chosen careers right after graduation, and not have that interfere,” Heo said. “It was very difficult telling the team that I was going to leave and come back in two years.”
Heo arrived for basic training at the R.O.K. Naval Academy in June 2009, not very far from his hometown, and learned how to become a soldier. He went through a month of boot camp, and then another four weeks of training for navy seamen, learning the ins and outs of life on a battleship.
Fortunately for Heo, before training, he had met a naval officer at a Starbucks in his hometown. The officer was a graduate of Bowdoin (in the same conference as Amherst) and teaching English at the Naval Academy. While at basic training, Heo interviewed for a teaching assistant position in the English department.
Between his year at Amherst, and a high school education at the Pennington School near Princeton, N.J., Heo was fluent in English, and landed the unique position at the Naval Academy. For the rest of his service, he assisted professors or helped midshipmen learn English or translated military documents.
“I was very lucky to get that job,” Heo said. “I had a pretty easy life for the rest of my military career.”
But while Heo was making the most of his military service, he was still missing his teammates and college life at Amherst.
“After leaving, the first year I couldn’t really keep in touch with anybody because I was on the low end of the military ranks and didn’t have a lot of access to the internet and phones,” Heo said. “But in the second year, I called them whenever I could, ignoring all the costs of phone bills that my parents paid for.”
“We’d get random phone calls at night or 2 a.m., because of the time difference,” Amherst head coach Justin Serpone said. “Every time I would see the overseas number, I knew exactly who it was. He would say, ‘Coach, how are the guys doing? I can’t wait to be back. Only six more months … only three more months.’ He missed being here so much and we missed having him. He is a big part of who we are.”
Last summer, Heo completed his two years of service, and headed back to Massachusetts with three years of school and soccer to look forward to. But Heo hadn’t competed in a full soccer game for two years, and he and Serpone were not exactly sure how his return would turn out.
“Obviously, I don’t have a crystal ball to see how being away from soccer will affect somebody,” Serpone said. “So, that was the question. Would Jae still have it? He has it and then some.”
Heo participated in a players-only practice week before the official preseason began 10 days before the Lord Jeffs’ first game. During that week, he played soccer with his teammates for six hours a day.
“I was really anxious about playing soccer again,” Heo said. “Touching a soccer ball felt so weird. The team is so much better than in my freshman year – kids looked so good to me and were playing so well. They were fitter and more skilled than I am, so I was very nervous if I would even play.”
Five days into preseason practice, Heo scored an overtime goal in an alumni game, and Serpone knew it wouldn’t take long for the rust to wear off.
“The first couple of practices he was frustrated,” Serpone said. “I was thinking we would give him plenty of time to get back into the swing of things and bring him off the bench in the first couple games. That wasn’t necessary. He has an innate ability to score goals -- it is something that is difficult to teach -- he just has it.”
Heo has not missed a beat this season. He shares the team lead in scoring with senior Spencer Noon with seven goals and 16 points, and has helped the Lord Jeffs jump out to a 11-0-1 record in their first 12 games.
“When you put Spencer Noon next to Jae, you know you’re going to be able to score some goals,” Heo said. “Offensively, we’ve had a good start.”
But more than his on-the-field contributions, Serpone is impressed with what the 22-year-old Heo has added to the team in terms of leadership.
“He went from this infectious personality that everyone liked as a freshman to being an out and out leader,” Serpone said. “He’s the encouraging one who will pull guys aside and give them a pat on the back. He’s the vocal leader that gets things back on track. I’m so proud of how he’s a matured.”
“I think after two years, you have a lot of time to spend by yourself in terms of the future,” Heo said. “I thought about many things like my career and long-term goals of life. I think I see things very differently now. I take things seriously now, and whatever I do is at my best effort.”
While Amherst is currently undefeated, ranked No. 4 nationally in Division III, and is on top of the NESCAC standings, the team understands there is still a long road ahead before a possible postseason run.
“I don’t think we’re a finished product yet,” Serpone said. “There’s a lot we still need to work on as a group, but our goal is always to win the next game.”