Kim Yeon-koung, who won the 2023-2024 V-League All-Star Game held at Samsan World Gymnasium in Incheon on April 27, was asked about Willow Johnson who joined the All-Star break. “Willow Johnson is a player who can hit the ball a little faster than Yelena. As he is left-handed, I believe he will be able to sway the rival teams even more,” Kim said at the time. He is very active and shows good fighting spirit. We have high expectations because he is the type of player our team needed.”
At the time of the interview, some wondered if it was Kim Yeon-koung’s “lip service” for the new player who joined the team. Willow Johnson was the first among the 2022-2023 and 2023-2024 tryouts to apply for the V-League, but the main reason was that his skills were below expectations, except for the popularity that he was the daughter of Randy Johnson, a legendary left-hander in the U.S. Major League. Coach Han’s impact was so weak that he had no proper memory of Willow during the tryout.
However, what Kim Yeon-koung said was true. Since Willow joined Heungkuk Life Insurance, the mood of the team has completely changed. The gap between leading Hyundai E&C and Heungkuk Life Insurance, which had a gap of eight points until the end of the fourth round, has narrowed to three. Notably, Heungkuk Life Insurance had a 3-0 shutdown victory over their fifth round showdown, which was a six-point match held on Friday, suggesting a lot.
Of course, Hyundai Engineering & Construction was not 100 percent successful. Weepawi (Thailand), the No. 1 outside heater in the team, was absent due to shoulder injury, and as a result, the trio of outside heaters Jeong Ji-yoon, Kim Joo-hyang and Go Ye-rim failed to play their part in both receiving and attacking in the match against Heungkuk Life. The more I stood on the court, the more negative my performance was.
Even if it wasn’t 100% power, the complete defeat in the face-off on the 12th is enough to be a big burden for Hyundai E&C players if they meet in the upcoming sixth round face-off and even further in the championship.
To put it bluntly, Willow clearly demonstrates a lower level of performance as a player than Jelena. It is true that Jelena is 196 centimeters tall, taller than Willow, who is 191 centimeters tall, and ahead of Jelena in attack power and skills. However, she often gets annoyed if things don’t go well on the court, and compared to Yelena, who had controversy over her attitude, Willow is a player who heightens the mood of her team both on and off the court. In other words, Willow is a player who is more beneficial to Heungkuk Life if factors other than skills are combined.
Four consecutive wins in the fifth round are a testament to this. Since joining Willow, Heungkuk Life has secured 12 points from four games including Korea Expressway Corporation, GS Caltex employees, Chung Kwan-jang and Hyundai Engineering & Construction. While winning 12 sets, only one set was given. Given that the remaining two games in the fifth round are IBK Industrial Bank and Pepper Savings Bank, which are lagging far behind in terms of performance, it is possible to cautiously predict winning the round.
Willow is not a foreign player who should be responsible for more than 40 percent of a team’s offense. In Heungkuk Life Insurance, Willow does not need to hit more than 40 percent by himself. There is Kim Yeon-koung, who is recognized as the best player in Korea, and Raina from Japan, who is showing off strong offense after being fixed to an outside heater. If Willow doesn’t have to give more than 20 points, that’s enough to relieve the burden of blocking the two players. Willow allowed him to play such a role in four games.
Kim admitted that he interviewed Willow at the All-Star Game with confidence and expectation. “I personally like watching foreign league videos, so I watched Willow play in the U.S.,” Kim said after his victory at the Hyundai Engineering & Construction match on Wednesday. “I was impressed by Willow’s aggressive attitude,” he said. “I had a lot of expectations, but he showed a much better attitude and skills than I expected. He is a player who is very helpful to my team.”
Willow played for Athletic Unlimited in the U.S. professional league before joining Heungkuk Life Insurance. He played alongside American outside heater Jordan Larson, MVP of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and Noatsara Tomcom, a former main setter in Thailand. “I also asked Larson or Noatsara, and she is so nice that she talks only nicely,” Kim Yeon-koung said. “I asked her to judge me objectively, but she was nice to me.”
Recruitment of Willow has a significant impact on Heungkuk Life’s squad outside of volleyball. “If you look at the MBTI of our team players, there are many I players. That’s how active they are, but there are many areas where Willow, who is E, comes to take the lead,” Kim said. “In terms of attack, our team has Raina and I. I needed a player to attack from the apogit position, and Willow is perfect for me.”
Now, the female volleyball emperor’s eyes are naturally on a come-from-behind victory in the regular league. Kim said, “I didn’t think it would be easy, but Hyundai E&C lost 2-3 in the Jeonggwanjang match in the fifth round, and we won the game, and we are in a situation where we can come from behind. I think it’s up to us now. It’s up to us. It’s up to us. We’ll do our best.”