Stokes Nihipali-Botelho has been making big plays in the limelight for the top-ranked Kahuku Red Raiders for two seasons now.
It’s a wonder opposing quarterbacks even throw in his direction. The defensive back, it seems, comes up with at least one interception per game. Sometimes two.
He had two picks in the Red Raiders’ 44-0 home victory over Campbell on Friday night, and he also had a ton of return yardage. And, let’s not forget, he kicked all six of his extra-point attempts.
Nihipali-Botelho was a huge part of Kahuku’s run to the Division I state championship when he was a junior a year ago. This year, as a senior, he is making sure that the team’s defensive unit at least comes close to last year, when the unit was arguably the best the state has ever seen, having yielded less than 4 points per game.
Aside from the stats he’s piling up, let’s take a look at what makes him special. From this vantage point, he has all the tools and instincts, but probably the best one is timing. He knows when to break on the football from his cornerback position.
Early in the game against Campbell, Sabers quarterback Kawika Ulufale tested Botelho directly by throwing a high ball to the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Markus Ramos. Nihipali-Botelho, at 5-10, 150, was giving away five inches and 40 pounds.
Sure enough, Ramos won that first physical battle — by a hair. But the next time Ulufale went to Ramos on that side, Botelho stepped in front of the pass and picked it off.
“He’s just a class act,” Kahuku head coach Vavae Tata said after Friday’s win, the team’s 17th in a row without a loss since he was hired. “He does it all. He tries to beat his previous best. That’s what we all try to do on defense, beat our previous best performance.”
That makes a lot of sense. A year ago, the Red Raiders ‘D’ started aggressively in a 50-0 season-opening home win over Campbell and kept improving each week until the whole thing came fully together in a 39-14 win over Saint Louis in the state championship game.
Sitting in the Aloha Stadium stands and watching that defense closely, it looked like a titanium umbrella that nothing was going to get through. Full protection of their turf. Keala Santiago, Nihipali-Botelho, Kekaula Kaniho … the top of that umbrella. Hungry linemen and linebackers lining up in multiple different looks with blitzing coming from many different directions and making star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa throw the ball up for grabs a few times.
Well, what will this year’s defense be like when it rounds all the way into form? Early-season bets were that they could not come near last season. But, those odds could be changing. Nihipali-Botelho and Kaniho, the team’s other cornerback that figuratively has “aggressive” and “intangibles” written all over his scouting report, are there in the defensive backfield. Instead of Santiago, who is now at UH, they have Kesi Ah-Hoy, who is a football player’s football player. He’s quick, he’s fast, he can hit, he can overpower, he can make moves (he returned an interception 52 yards for a TD against Campbell) and he is the ultimate leader, according to his coaches. The way he plays with everything he’s got kind of, sort of make him the “ultimate Red Raider.” But, we all know we could argue that point all day.
Don’t forget to add in Miki Ah You, a sophomore who showed off his linebacker skills with multiple tackles, including a few body slams, against the Sabers (2-3, 2-2 OIA Blue).
Ah You also sacked Ulufale in the end zone for a safety for a 9-0 first-quarter lead. Three of his tackles were for loss and he topped it off with a blocked a punt that led to Kahuku’s second-to-last touchdown.
Take a look at this list of others who had a tackle for loss (kind of makes sense that the list is long, since, all told, Campbell was held to negative-15 yards on the night): Toalei Lefau (two), Jarom Wesley, Sioeli Naupoto, Kaniho, Aliki Vimahi (sack), Sedric Iafeta, Marcus Damuni (sack) and Samson Kapule-Siilata.
Samson Reed and George Lauhingoa contributed to the monster defensive night with fumble recoveries for Kahuku (4-0, 4-0 OIA Blue).
But, back to Nihipali-Botelho. Aside from his two interceptions, he had several breakups. And let’s also take a look at his return yardage. He ran back the opening kickoff against Campbell 84 yards for a touchdown (in the journalism business, mentioning that igniting moment this late in the story is called burying the lead).
In addition, Nihipali-Botelho returned one of his picks for 41 yards and added a 40-yard punt return. Combined with the kickoff return, that’s at least 165 yards in returns for the night.
“This whole week we’ve been practicing all of our special teams, so everybody was on,” Nihipali-Botelho said. “We were making sure all of us were 100 percent and knew our jobs, so we just had to come out and execute, and — with all of that combined with what I did — it felt really good.
“We’ve got a lot to work on, giving up too much yards, too many big plays. We’ve just got to come back next week (to prepare for the Radford game on Friday), start working on it and hopefully come out better.”
That’s Tata’s way of saying, “Beat our previous best performance.”
The Rams (0-4, 0-3), next week’s opponent, won the Division II state championship a year ago before moving up to D-I to start this season. It will be Kahuku’s final game before heading to Las Vegas for a Sept. 17 matchup against Bishop Gorman, the No. 1 team in the USA Super 25.
There were a handful of players for Campbell who had a big night defensively, including Poki‘i Adkins-Kupukaa (two fumble recoveries and a clutch tackle on a Kahuku fourth down and 2 situation), freshman linebacker Tyrese Tafai (multiple tackles), and Jeremiah Leaeno (forced fumble).
The Sabers have a bye next weekend and return to action Sept. 16 against Moanalua (2-2, 1-2). It will be Campbell’s first home game since 2014. The Sabers played on the road all of last season and part of this season with the field and surrounding track getting improvements.