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'Volleyball Empress' Kim breathes a sigh of relief: "We can't repeat last year's mistakes"

After a thrilling come-from-behind victory in the first round of the Women's Professional Volleyball Playoffs, "Volleyball Empress" Kim Yeon-kyung (Heungkuk Life) let out a deep sigh as she walked into the interview room. It was a clear indication that the match was physically and mentally challenging. At the same time, there was also a sense of relief that she had won a difficult match.

Heungkuk Life defeated Jeong Kwanjang 3-1 (22-25 25-13 25-23 25-23) in three sets in the first round of the Professional Volleyball Jeong Kwanjang 2023-24 V League Women's Playoffs (PO) at the Incheon Samsan Gymnasium on Nov. 22.

Heungkuk Life, which finished second in the regular season after battling Hyundai E&C for the lead until the very end, has a 100 percent chance of qualifying with a win. In the 17 previous Women's POs, every team that won the first round has advanced to the championship match.

The path to victory was not easy. They had a shaky start to the match, dropping the first set. With the score tied at 1-1, the third set was a close one, 16-22, but they pulled off a dramatic comeback to win.

On the day, Kim contributed 23 points, the second most on the team after foreign player Willow Johnson (registered name Willow - 25 points). But it was her defense that really stood out, as she collected a team-high 25 digs, including four that went directly to the setter. Her defense saved Heungkuk's life at crucial moments.

"We could have easily won today, but we gave up the flow and made it difficult," Kim said in a post-match interview. "We cheered and encouraged each other and overcame the crucial moments, and our concentration came alive at the end to win the match."

Kim credited Willow, the team's top scorer, for the victory, saying, "The whole team's mood has improved since she came," and praised Willow, saying, "I think she knows that all the players are looking at her, and she's trying harder to improve the atmosphere."

In truth, the offense didn't go well. The setter's toss was long, making it difficult for even Kim Yeon-kyung to execute the offense perfectly.

"We practiced a lot of situations where the ball falls out of the net," Kim said, "but my toss wasn't very good today, so I think I need to work on it more. I think we need to prepare more for the second game as there are some things that worked well in training but didn't work in the match."

After a day's rest, Heungkuk Life will play the second leg of the playoffs on April 24 in Daejeon, home of Jeonggwanjang. In the history of the playoffs, the team that wins the first leg has advanced to the championship game 100% of the time.

However, Heungkuk Life has a painful memory of last season's championship match against Korea Expressway Corporation, when it lost three straight games after winning the first two games. So they decided not to believe in odds or statistics. They're also wary of the slightest hiccup.

"We'll have to stay nervous and play well until the end," Kim said, adding, "The second game is an away match, so it will be most important to set the tone early on. We need to show our ability to finish right away," Kim emphasized.

"I think this year will be different from last year. In last season's championship game, the road construction was too good and we lost our nerves in the third game," he said, adding, "We can't repeat that again this year, so we will prepare well and finish cleanly."