When Kim Yeon-kyung, 35, became a free agent ahead of the 2023-24 season, she chose to stay with her hometown team, Heungkuk Life. In addition, Kim’s “best friend” and league-leading middle blocker Kim Soo-ji also donned a Heungkuk Life jersey, turning the team into a title contender.
As if to prove their credentials, Heungkuk Life earned a shutout victory over last season’s championship finalists, Korea Expressway Corporation, in their V-League opener on April 14.
Kim Yeon-kyung, along with her best friend Kim Soo-ji, began their third attempt to win the championship.
Two comebacks, two championships, both ended in disappointment
In her first season in the V-League, Kim led Heungkuk Sinsaeng to the championship in 2005-06. She won three more championships before leaving the league in 2008-09.
Kim went on to dominate the European scene, becoming one of the best players in the world and earning the title of “Volleyball Empress. She returned to the V-League for the 2020-21 season. Together with outside hitter Lee Jae-young and setter Lee Da-young, she formed the league’s most feared trio. Heungkuk Life was the overwhelming favorite to win the title.
In fact, the team was dominant at the beginning of the 2020-21 season. However, midway through the season, controversy erupted over bullying allegations against Lee Jae-young and Lee Da-young during their middle school years. Lee and Lee were eventually suspended, and Heungkuk Life was mortally wounded. Kim struggled, but the team finished second in the regular season and fell to GS Caltex in the championship.
After the 2020-21 season, Kim played for Shanghai Bright YouVest in China. She then made a surprise return to Heungkuk Life for the 2022-23 season. This time, Yelena played alongside Kim as a fierce duo. ‘Divine’ middle blocker Lee Ju-ah played a big role with her excellent height and blocking.
However, in the middle of the 2022-23 season, Heungkuk Life sacked head coach Kwon Soon-chan and Kim Yeon-kyung suffered another setback. There was also a controversy over on-field intervention by the higher-ups. Through it all, ace Kim led the team to compete for the top spot and eventually overcame the pressure to finish first in the regular season with Marcello Abondanza, who was hired late in the season.
With momentum on their side, Heungkuk Life, led by Kim Yeon-kyung, recorded two straight wins over Korea Expressway Corporation in the second game of the championship final. They were just one step away from winning the championship, but lost three straight games to Korea Expressway Corporation.
Heungkuk Life remains, Kim Soo-ji joins… ‘The strongest’ is born
After finishing as shock runners-up, Heungkuk Life faced a major crisis ahead of the 2023-24 season. One of their pillars, Kim Yeon-kyung, became a free agent. However, she chose to stay with her home team. She agreed with Heungkuk’s blueprint for winning.
Heungkuk Sinsang’s blueprint was to sign Kim Soo-ji. Kim Soo-ji is a 6-foot-2 player whose strength lies in effective blocking. The middle blocker lineup of Heungkuk Sinsang consisted of “veteran” Kim Soo-ji and “rookie” Lee Ju-ah. The lineup is as strong as the Kim Yeon-kyung-Elena duo.
Kim Hae-ran, a 39-year-old libero who is one of the top liberos in the league, was also retained. This gives Heungkuk Life the best offensive and defensive strength and height in the league. In addition to Kim, the team also retained its organizational strength from last season. Heungkuk Life has grown into a team that is hard to crack.
Last season’s title contenders underwent a power shift
On the other hand, last season’s title challenger, Korea Express, has undergone a major change. Their main guns, Park Jung-ah and Catbell, have both left the team. After becoming a free agent, Park moved to last season’s bottom team, Pepper Savings Bank. Catbell left the V-League.
Korea Expressway Corporation replaced Park and Catbell with new foreign players Bukirichi and Tanacha, both Asian quota players. However, Vukirich and Tanacha only scored 12 and 6 points, respectively, in the opening game on Thursday against Heungkuk Life. The team was swept by Heungkuk Life without any of the offensive firepower they had last season.
Hyundai E&C, who battled for the top spot in the regular season down the stretch, also lost “captain” and outside hitter Hwang Min-kyung ahead of the 2023-24 season. Hwang joined IBK in free agency, while fellow outside hitter Ko Yerim underwent knee surgery and Jung Jeong-yoon was sidelined early in the season with an ankle injury.
Hyundai E&C filled the two outside hitter spots with compensation player Kim Joo-hyang and Wipai, who was brought in as an Asia Quarter player. However, Wipai only managed a 28.99% receiving efficiency in the opening two games. Kim Joo-hyang was at 18.82%. Hwang Min-kyung’s reception was far from steady.
Ultimately, HMC’s receiving woes led to a 2-3 set loss against Heungkuk Life on the 18th. Hyundai E&C is suffering from a big power leak at the outside hitter position.
Heungkuk Life’s weakness, a strong dark horse emerges
As you can see, Heungkuk Life has gotten stronger this season, and its competitors have gotten weaker. The team has a golden opportunity to win the championship.
However, the seemingly perfect team has one weakness. Their starting setter Lee Won-jung is faltering. Lee Won-jung was brought in midway through last season and, unlike the previous setter, Kim Da-sol, became a mainstay, delivering high, accurate tosses to Kim Yeon-kyung and Yelena.
However, Lee Won-jung has been unstable with her tosses in the early part of the season. In the Hyundai E&C match, she delivered a ball that was too low to Kim Yeon-kyung and Yelena. Kim and Yelena were unable to find openings and were forced to turn over numerous balls.
In the end, Abondanza substituted Kim Da-sol for Lee Won-jung and the team struggled to hold off Hyundai E&C. Despite the win, Abondanza’s face was often distorted. Kim Da-sol also failed to deliver a satisfactory toss.먹튀검증
While Heungkuk Sinsaeng exposed its shortcomings at the setter position, an unexpected dark horse also emerged. Jeong Kwan-jang was in tremendous form in the team’s shutout win over IBK on April 17.
Jung’s Asian quarterback, Mega, was as devastating as any foreign player as an outside hitter. Outside hitter Ria earned a passing grade for her performance on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. The team’s existing strengths of Yoon Hye-sun’s stable toss and midblockers Park Eun-jin and Jung Ho-young’s height were also stable. If the injured “captain” Lee So-young returns, they will be the biggest threat to Heungkuk Sinsaeng.
Kim Yeon-kyung has made two ambitious returns to the Korean stage, but both times she finished as the runner-up in the championship game. This time, she is aiming to win the title with her ‘best friend’ Kim Soo-ji. Of course, they’ll have to overcome Heungkuk Sinsaeng’s setter issues and their newest rival, Jung Kwan-jang. It will be interesting to see if Kim Yeon-kyung can solve these problems and win the championship this season.