Korean Air, representing South Korea at the 2023 Asian Men’s Club Volleyball Championship, finished in seventh place after defeating Mongolia’s Bayang Hongor.
Korean Air swept Bayang Hongor 먹튀검증 3-0 (25-21, 25-23, 25-18) despite playing a non-starter lineup in the seventh- and eighth-place match at the Isa Sports City Stadium in Manama, Bahrain, on Nov. 21 (local time). With the win, Korean Air improved to 4-3 in seven matches at the tournament and finished in seventh place.
Korean Air did not enter the tournament at full strength. Han, the team’s captain and best setter, and Kim Gyu-min, the team’s best middle blocker, traveled with the squad but did not play due to injury and rehabilitation. In addition, foreign outside hitter Lincoln Williams was unable to join the squad due to the lack of an ITC (International Transfer Consent). “We want to use this tournament as an opportunity to give our future players international experience and playing time,” said head coach Tommi Tilikainen.
Nonetheless, Korean Air started the tournament on a high note, with back-to-back 3-0 victories over Australia’s Canberra Heat and Bahrain’s Al Ahli, the tournament favorites.
However, with seven games in eight days, the team’s lack of full strength was evident in game after game. The unexpected upset of Indonesia’s Jakarta Bayankar in the final match of the group stage left them unable to overcome the disadvantage of going into the quarterfinals with one loss, and their inability to stop Iranian international apogee spiker Saber Kazemi (Kuwait Sporting Club) in the fifth and sixth place matches.
The Sunbirds, led by one of the world’s best middle blockers in Dmitry Mushalsky, were swept 0-3 in the first game of the quarterfinals, leading to a rather humiliating post-match comment from Mushalsky that the Sunbirds were “about as good as a 9th-11th place team in the Japanese league.”
While the team finished on a somewhat disappointing note, it was certainly an accomplishment. Setter Jeong Jin-hyuk, outside hitter Lee Jun, and middle blocker Jeong Jin-wi, who had rarely been given a chance in the V-League, were given a lot of playing time and tested their potential. Lim Dong-hyuk, who took over Lincoln’s role as outside hitter, was also given a chance to showcase his offensive instincts without the support of his teammates. Libero Kang Seung-il, the youngest member of the team born in 2005, also made her professional debut in the tournament.
After the tournament, Coach Tilikainen said, “Although we were clear about our goals before the tournament started, we had mixed feelings during the tournament,” adding, “There were many times when our prepared plays didn’t come out right. We have a clear idea of what we need to work on after we return from vacation.”
For Tilikainen, the biggest takeaways from the tournament were Lim Dong-hyuk and Lee Jun. “Lim Dong-hyuk really showed his attacking power regardless of who his opponent was, and his attitude and behavior on the court were very good,” he said, “and I think Lee Jun also showed his skills and potential.”
The Asian Men’s Club Volleyball Championship is held annually. Next year it will be held in Japan, with Korean Air, the 2022-2023 V-League champions, having priority. If Tilikainen has his way, the team will be there again next year. “This is not a tournament to be taken lightly,” he says. Other teams are so committed to this competition that they even bring in players on short-term contracts just for this competition. If we participate in this tournament again next year, we want to give it our all,” he said. “I think we need to participate in various international tournaments like this for the development of Korean volleyball.”
Korean Air will grant the team a vacation until June 26 after their arrival in Korea. Tilikainen revealed the team’s future plans, saying, “After returning from vacation, we will train to reflect on what we learned from this tournament.”