Punahou water polo wins 12th straight ILH crown

Punahou's Dillyn Lietzke made a goal in the third period to go ahead 7-1 over Kamehameha in the ILH championship. / Photo by Steven Erler, Special to the Star-Advertiser

It’s 12 titles in a row now for the Punahou girls water polo team, but not the 12 the Buffanblu want.

The coveted dozen could come early next month in the Stanford Carr Development/HHSAA tournament.

Punahou, the gold standard in Hawaii high school water polo, showed few signs of bronzing anytime soon with its 12-6 win over Kamehameha for the school’s 12th straight ILH title on Thursday at ‘Iolani.

No one has beaten Punahou in years — it’s basically gone unbeaten in all its matches since that state streak began in 2008, a staggering feat.

In recent years, Kamehameha has provided the staunchest challenge. And there were moments on Thursday that the Warriors caused a little doubt to creep in. In the teams’ previous matchup, the game was tied at 5-all at halftime before the Buffanblu outscored the Warriors 5-0 in the second half.

This time, it was tied 1-1 after a quarter, a seemingly competitive battle. Then Punahou, a devastating counterattacking team, put up a five-spot in the second to make it 6-1 at halftime. Kamehameha, to its credit, rallied to within 9-6 early in the fourth quarter before Punahou pulled away for good.

“One thing is our composure,” Punahou coach Ken Smith said of what’s improved as the season’s progressed. “I think our team defense has improved a lot. And that’s what we kind of base a lot of our success on, is our team defense.”

It’s not easy to be the unquestioned best, year in and year out, and maintain the requisite level of focus to be a state champion. Junior center Christina Hicks is fully aware of this.

“We started this season off very strong, and we’ve been trying to maintain that,” said Hicks, one of three Buffanblu (along with Dillyn Lietzke and Victoria Gacutan) to record a hat trick Thursday. “It’s very hard to keep up the strong mentality when you don’t have the competition all of the time.”

But this time, they felt it.

“Kamehameha put up a really awesome fight,” Hicks said. “We’re all friends outside of the pool, we play with each other all the time. So, it’s just fun to see what everyone can bring to the pool. I really liked how we were really challenged in this game. It was really awesome. It brings up the team attitude and morale and makes us want to work harder.”

The Buffanblu will fall back to their iron-sharpens-iron approach in the pool from now until their first state match in the quarterfinals May 2.

“We’re playing against the best players in the state in practice,” Hicks said. “So, just trying to go as hard as possible, and not taking things personally and definitely knowing that me going hard on my teammate is to help them become a better athlete. And they’re going hard on me so I can be a better athlete.”

Kamehameha, under first-year coach Anthony Cabrera, has reasons for hope. The Warriors showed fight in some key moments and were without one of their top players in Lori Char, who is expected back for states. Samantha Nakagawa led the way with three goals off the bench.

Now the Warriors, who open the state tournament in their home pool on April 29, will go for a fifth straight finals appearance and do it with a mind to shock the local water polo world.

“I thought we played three really good quarters,” said Cabrera, the former JV coach who took over this year for Randy Bart. “There’s that one quarter they always, I mean, they’re tough throughout, but we just fall too far behind and it’s hard to make up that difference.

“I think we’re getting better each game. The first couple (11-2 and 12-3) were a little rough, but we’re making progress.”

Punahou goalie Sarah Perez blocked a late fourth period shot by Kamehameha. / Photo by Steven Erler, Special to the Star-Advertiser


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