By Michael Carman
Peninsula Daily News
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Johnson decided to found a Washington State club team with the help of some-like minded former high school grapplers.
They waded through the maze of approvals required for club sports at the university and eventually earned recognition from the National Collegiate Wrestling Association, or NCWA.
The paperwork paid off as Johnson finished sixth in the 165-pound weight class and earned All-American honors at the National Collegiate Wrestling Association finals in Allen, Texas on Saturday.
As a team, the Cougars finished sixth overall out of 56 participating teams in NCWA Division II.
“In college wrestling you're facing an array of guys who have won state titles or medaled [at state], so most wrestlers are on the same level,” Johnson said.
“It's really who's the best wrestler that day or who is more prepared since every match is a battle.”
Johnson, a three-time state placer at Port Townsend, rolled to a fast start, winning his first three matches at the national finals before falling by a single point in the semifinals.
“One point away from being in the national championship,” Johnson said.
The NCWA regulates the sport for many NCAA schools who have seen their wrestling programs fold in the decades since governmental legislation mandated equal athletic opportunities for males and females at federally funded universities.
Other schools have chopped non-revenue producing sports in favor of funneling more dollars to the sports that traditionally fund athletic departments — football and basketball.
Johnson, the son of longtime former Port Townsend wrestling coach Joey Johnson, began coaching the Pullman Middle School team soon after arriving on campus.
While instructing the students, Johnson's desire to compete was rekindled.
“I was really tempted to transfer and go wrestle somewhere else, but I found out about the NCWA and then I found a group of guys who were supportive of the idea [of forming a club team],” Johnson said.
The team formed in the spring of 2012, with tryouts attracting about 35 students and the team ending up with about 10 dedicated competitors.
This year the team has grown to about 15 wrestlers and are coached by Chris Gambino, a former North Carolina State University wrestler working on his doctorate in animal sciences at Washington State.
Club team members raise funds and seek sponsors for the bulk of the squad's budget, but they also received funding from the Associated Students of Washington State University and the University Recreation Department for the trip to the national finals.
Johnson, a criminal justice major at the school, also is a member of the Army and is seeking to attend Army Officer Candidate School after graduation.
He's continued instructing the Pullman Middle School wrestling team, and with his background and love of the sport it looks likely he'll continue in a coaching role in the future.
“Wrestling is such a great sport, one that teaches character, drive and integrity, and I love to teach these things to kids and help them progress,” Johnson said.