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Top seed Punahou still has something to prove

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    Brandon Pitzer has been an important part of Punahou's attack all season.

There is always room to grow, still more to show — even for two-time defending state champions.

Top-ranked Punahou put together a clean, unbeaten run through the gauntlet that is the Interscholastic League of Honolulu. Nonetheless, Buffanblu coach Rick Tune believes his team has something to prove as it goes for a three-peat in this week’s New City Nissan/HHSAA Boys Volleyball State Championships in Hilo.

In the 12-team Division I bracket released yesterday, ILH champion Punahou (19-0) was, as expected, granted the tournament’s top seed. The Buffanblu open play on Thursday against either Pearl City or Waianae, two of eight teams that start the tournament on Wednesday at Keaau and Waiakea high schools. The championship is at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Keaau.

"We feel we were playing at a pretty high level, but honestly we still feel we’re playing about 85 percent," Tune said. "We can still get better. We’ve identified a couple of areas we want to get better at, throw in a couple more wrinkles. We definitely think we can up it a couple notches, so that’s what we’re looking to do."

Oahu Interscholastic Association champion Moanalua is the No. 2 seed, Big Island Interscholastic Federation champion Waiakea was granted the No. 3 spot and Maui Interscholastic League titlist Baldwin is the last of the seeded teams at No. 4. Each were afforded coveted first-round byes.

Though the Buffanblu are imposing with players like senior middle Ben Lam and freshman sensation Tui Tuileta, they aren’t infallible. Kamehameha (17-3), on the other side of the bracket, dealt Punahou a loss in nonconference play at the ‘Iolani Boys Volleyball Invitational in March.

And two league champions, Waiakea (14-0) and Moanalua (16-0), only know winning. Baldwin (13-2) was knocked out of the winner’s bracket in its first state match in 2009 and 2010 and should be hungry for redemption.

Among the seeded teams, the Waiakea Warriors look to have the toughest road to a championship in their hometown. Their reward for an undefeated season? A potential quarterfinal matchup with ILH runner-up Kamehameha, the third-ranked team in the Star-Advertiser Top 10. Kamehameha, the state runner-up each of the last two years, enters the tournament confident after downing second-ranked ‘Iolani in a playoff for the ILH’s last state berth on Friday.

Moanalua, powered by senior hitter Richard Harpole, was the only representative of the OIA Red East. BIIF and MIL runner-ups Kamehameha-Hawaii and King Kekaulike are sprinkled in among five OIA Red West teams playing on the first day — Pearl City, Waianae, Leilehua, Waipahu and Mililani.

Punahou’s legacy of greatness in boys volleyball is impressive. The Buffanblu have 29 of the 42 titles since state competition started in 1969, and five of the past six.

In going for No. 30, Tune thought traveling off island was a help, not a hindrance, by helping the team bond and stay focused by spending extra time together. The coach wasn’t taking anything for granted.

"The other half of the bracket’s a really tough bracket, with Waiakea and Moanalua and Kamehameha," Tune said. "We’re going to have to see what happens at that end. Our side is the one we have to focus on and pay attention to right now."

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