Groundbreaking local wrestlers setting new standards

Submitted photo – The Humboldt Masonic Lodge No.79 donated $790 to Kelli Johnston and Slate Delsman, who had to raise more than $4,000 for their trip to the national tournament. Pictured from left to right, Lodge Junior Deacon Davin Bowerman; Lodge Master Dax Allen; Kelli Johnston and Slate Delsman; Eureka wrestling Coach Cecil Wilson; and Lodge Junior Steward Steve Buckingham.

By Ray Hamill — Girls wrestling is definitely on the rise here in Humboldt County.

This weekend, Eureka’s Slate Delsman and Kelli Johnston will represent the state of California at a national freestyle tournament in North Dakota, before both of them take their talents to Colorado Mesa next month, where they will become the first two local girls to wrestle at the NCAA Division-II level.

Their success showcases just how far local girls wrestling has come in recent years.

Both girls wrestled for four years at Eureka High, competing for one of the fastest growing programs in the North Coast Section and falling in love with the sport while learning many valuable life lessons along the way.

“At first, I really liked throwing people around,” said Johnston, who began wrestling while still an eighth grader at Zane Middle School, before adding with a chuckle, “When I got to high school I realized sports are about a lot more than what you do on the mat.”

The sport has taught them the value of hard work and a lot more besides.

“It’s really taught me to love working hard instead of slacking off,” Johnston added. “It’s taught me hard work will reward you and that’s really helped me in my school work, and in my family life.”

Delsman began wrestling when she got to high school, but had a natural inclination for the sport from a young age.

“I’m the only girl to four brothers, so growing up I was a little more rough and tough than most girls,” she said, adding that she was immediately attracted to the sport when she saw an introductory video on the sport as a freshman in high school.

“I thought to myself, I want to do that,” she added. “It looks like a whole lot of fun.”

Delsman admits, however, that it wasn’t as easy as she had anticipated.

“It was a lot harder than I thought,” she said. “But it was something I wanted to get better at. In wrestling it doesn’t matter how talented you are, how fast you are, how strong you are. It matters how much hard work you put in. I love that you have to work to get to the top.”

Photo by Jennifer Johnston – Eureka’s Kelli Johnston in action at last year’s high school state championships.

The talented duo flew out of Humboldt County on Friday and will have a couple of days of practice with their California teammates over the weekend before competing in the prestigious tournament next week.

After that, they will head off to Colorado Mesa together, becoming the first-ever girls from the county to compete at the NCAA Division-II college level, according to high school coach Cecil Wilson.

Johnston was the first to commit after visiting the campus with her parents and liking the area and coaches.

“Grand Junction is very outdoorsy and I’m kind of used to that in Humboldt,” she said. “My parents drove me out there to see if we liked it, and I thought, this seems like a good place for me.”

Delsman, meanwhile, was planning on wrestling collegiately at Southwestern Oregon but nixed that plan after meeting with her financial advisor.

“I called Kelli to tell her and I was crying, and she said ‘hey, you should take a look at Colorado Mesa,’” Delsman said. “And a couple of hours later I had submitted my application, and the approval process was very smooth and very quick.”

Having a high school teammate and friend on the same college team is something both are looking forward to.

“I think it’s awesome,” Delsman said. “Going to college is a big adjustment, and going to college in another state is a big adjustment. And having somebody at the end of the day who’s there for you, and somebody you know very well, will make it that much easier.”

Delsman is familiar with the area, often visiting her grandparents who lived in the town of Grand Junction.

“I’m super excited to go out there and be in Grand Junction again,” she said. “I love the area and I’m really excited about taking another step on my journey.”

Competing in North Dakota will also be another memorable step for both Delsman and Johnston.

“I really just want to go out there and see what I can do,” Johnston said. 

Delsman echoed the sentiment.

“I’m going out there to compete with myself,” she said. “What I want out of this tournament is to go out and compete and get better. My expectations are to go out there and wrestle and do what I know I can do.”

No matter how they fare, their inclusion on the state team is fantastic recognition for a Loggers program that placed third overall in the NCS in 2020 and continues to make waves.

“I’m really excited to see what this program can do,” Johnston said.

“I definitely love to see more girls getting involved in the sport,” Delsman added.

Both Johnston and Delsman are doing their part to influence and inspire the next generation of local girls on the mats.

Johnston will major in sports management, while Delsman will major in psychology.

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