In the 2023 Korean Volleyball Federation (KOVO) men’s Asia Quarter Tryout Draft held in Jeju Island from the 25th to the 27th, Korean Air’s goal was clear. Libero Lee, who plays for Japan’s Panasonic, chose Ryohei (Japan). Dividing the 24 players into three groups of eight, Korean Air manager Tommy Tilikayinen singled out Ryohei and openly expressed interest in the Japanese league’s libero during a meeting held on the morning of the second day.
Korean Air wasn’t the only team targeting Ryohei. KEPCO, which operated the libero last season with Lee Ji-seok, born in 1998, and Ji-won Jang, born in 2001, also tried to reinforce the libero position by selecting Ryohei, born in 1994 and entering the veteran ranks. In this tryout, it was an open secret that Korean Air and KEPCO would select Ryohei from the team with the first nomination rights.
As a result of the draft lottery held on the afternoon of the 27th, KEPCO ranked 2nd and Korean Air ranked 3rd. Samsung Fire & Marine Insurance, who had the right to nominate first, selected Eddy (Mongolia)ㅋㅋㅋ벳, and it was KEPCO’s turn. Director Kwon Young-min nominated Ryohei without hesitation.
The order of Korean Air that followed. Middle blocker Bayarsaihan (Mongolia), who was also mentioned as the first overall candidate, still remained, but coach Tillikainen’s choice was outside hitter Mark Espeho (Philippines). Although Espeho was expected to be in the top 7, being evaluated as the most stable in receiving ability among participants in this tryout, Eddie, Bayarsaihan, and Ryohei were the tallest (203cm) middle blocker Cai Feichang (Taiwan) in this tryout. It was a somewhat unexpected choice because it was evaluated as the ‘Big 4’ and expected to be selected after the 4th place. Korean Air, which has a receiving line that connects Jung Ji-seok and Kwak Seung-seok, had the thickest outside heater player base among the seven men’s clubs, so it was a choice that made them tilt their heads even more.
Listening to the interview with Espeho after the draft, I had a feeling that Korean Air’s unexpected choice that day might be a ‘God’s move’. Espejo was full of pride and confidence about his volleyball and representing Philippine volleyball.
Espejo said, “When the draft started, I was so nervous that I thought my heart would explode. I didn’t expect Korean Air to be the defending champion team, but I’m honored and happy that Korean Air chose me.”
To Espejo, ‘Korean Air’s main outside hitters Jeong Ji-seok and Kwak Seung-seok are also the main players in the national team. When asked, “I have to compete with players like this,” he revealed his confidence, saying, “I am also a Philippine national team member.” He continued, “I had a match with Jung Ji-seok before in Myanmar for the under-23 national team. In the past, we competed while watching each other on the court, but now we are playing on the same team. It’s really exciting,” he added.
In the Philippines, which was a colony of the United States, English is also the official language. Espeho is also fluent in English, so there is no problem communicating with coach Tillikainen, which will help him adapt to Korean Air volleyball even more. Espeho was motivated by saying, “I will learn Korean for the team.”
Throughout Espeho’s interview, the word ‘swag’ came to mind. Regarding the merits he considers himself, he cited receiving as the number one virtue of an outside heater. Espeho said, “Attacks and blocking are all similar. I will show a different part in receiving,” he emphasized.
The first sport that comes to mind when thinking of the Philippines is basketball. Jordan Clarkson (Utah Jazz) from the Philippines is also active as a top-notch shooting guard in the NBA. Espejo also acknowledged that fact, saying, “The main sport in the Philippines is basketball, and the second is women’s volleyball.” Espejo also started with basketball and played both basketball and volleyball until high school, but there is a story that he switched to volleyball after suffering an injury to his left hand.
Espeho’s pride was extraordinary. He said, “I am a player who can be called an icon of men’s volleyball in the Philippines. It will be a tool that leads the development of men’s volleyball in the Philippines. I will show you that there are male players who are good at volleyball in the Philippines. I always like taking on challenges.”
Espeho’s interview sense was extraordinary enough to reveal a ‘RESPECT’ for Korean Air, which has just become a team. When asked, “Do you like the Korean Air logo or uniform?” Espeho answered, “The 4 stars on the uniform feel heavy.”
Espejo, the self-proclaimed icon of men’s volleyball in the Philippines. Will Espeho be able to reveal its presence in Korean Air’s outside heater team, which includes Jung Ji-seok and Kwak Seung-seok duo and Jeong Han-yong? If his presence becomes clear in the upcoming 2023-2024 season, it means that Korean Air’s 4th consecutive victory is getting closer.