Bernie Truax (pictured) is the highest-seeded Mustang going into the tournament. Credit: Derek Righetti | Mustang News, 2023

During the 2015-16 season, Cal Poly Wrestling struggled to win just three duals, including a single conference win and limped to a sixth-place finish in the Pac-12.

That off-season, the Mustangs hired head coach Jon Sioredas, and a breath of fresh air overtook the program.

Slowly but surely, Cal Poly became more and more dangerous within the Pac-12. 

In 2018, former Mustang Colton Shilling became the first individual Pac-12 champion in five years. 

The 2020 campaign saw Cal Poly emerge from the cellar of the conference for the first time since 2012. The following year, the program captured a top-25 finish at the NCAA Championships.

Fast forward to this season, where Sioredas and the Mustangs have cemented their position as a sneaky team capable of dethroning perennial powerhouses.

Cal Poly went unbeaten in Pac-12 duals, knocking off No. 8 Arizona State and No. 26 Oregon State in the process. 

At the Pac-12 Championships, the Mustangs were primed to compete for a team title, and they did.

Every Cal Poly wrestler qualified for either a third-place or title belt, trailing by just 7.5 points heading into the championship round.

With NCAA championship qualifications on the line, three Mustangs took advantage and punched their tickets to the Big Dance: redshirt sophomore Antonio Lorenzo, graduate Ethan Rotondo and redshirt junior Bernie Traux.

For Lorenzo, his journey to a second NCAA tournament was unorthodox.

All things were looking good when he began the season 5-1. An ensuing six-match losing streak and a knee injury nearly derailed his season entirely.

“I think [the injury] was a blessing in disguise,” Sioredas said. “It gave him time to heal up but also be fresh, more so mentally than physically.”

Without competing in dual meets since Jan. 20, Lorenzo made his way back to the mat just in time for the Pac-12 Championships. He earned a four seed despite missing all Pac-12 regular season duals.

“I don’t think he was 100%, I think he was close but you can definitely tell he did what he had to do,” Sioredas said about Lorenzo’s health going into the Pac-12 Championships.

In his first-round bout, the 125-pounder cruised to a 10-2 major-decision victory. In the semifinals, the first true test for Lorenzo awaited: top-seeded Brandon Courtney from Arizona State.

The three-time Pac-12 champion and two-time All-American proved to be too much for Lorenzo, sending the Mustang down to the consolation bracket after a 4-2 decision.

With a quick turnaround and a slim opportunity for an automatic qualification, Lorenzo’s attention shifted to CSU Bakersfield’s Eddie Flores in the consolation semifinals. An 8-4 win sent Lorenzo to the third-place bout.

One year removed from his only NCAA appearance, the only thing in Lorenzo’s way from returning to the promised land was 26th-ranked Nico Provo from Stanford.

Lorenzo turned the heat up on offense, earning three takedowns on his way to a 7-4 win, clinching the final 125-pound automatic qualification.

“[Lorenzo] wrestled very, very well,” Siordeas said. “Hopefully we can keep this same momentum and heal up his knee for a couple more weeks.”

Arguably the most unlikely Mustang to qualify for NCAAs is Rotondo.

The former Wisconsin Badger ventured to Cal Poly as a graduate student, and a rocky start to the season awaited Rotondo, compiling a 4-10 record halfway through the 2023 slate.

“He really didn’t hit his stride until the last couple weeks [of the season] and just caught on fire,” Sioredas said. “We call him the ‘junkyard dog’ for a reason because he wrestles incredibly hard.”

The scrappy 133-pounder settled in, winning four of his last five bouts to round out the regular season. Even with the strong finish, Rotondo was given a four seed for the Pac-12 Championships.

Rotondo (left) worked back from a tough start to the season to clinch a spot in the NCAA Championships. Miles Berman | Mustang News

Following a 3-1 decision over Stanford’s Jackson Disario, an impending semifinal bout with Arizona State’s Michael McGee lingered.

As a four-time national qualifier, McGee outlasted Rotondo in a 9-6 decision, dropping Rotondo into the consolation semifinals.

Like the 125-pound division, 133s were also allocated three automatic qualifiers for the Pac-12. Rotondo’s hopes of making an NCAA appearance were slim, needing two more wins to claim a trip to Tulsa.

The experienced Mustang dug his heels in, knocking off Little Rock’s Joshua Sarpy, scheduling a rematch with Disario with an NCAA berth on the line.

Similar to their meeting hours prior, a takedown proved to be the difference, with Rotondo grinding out another 3-1 decision to punch his ticket to the NCAAs for the first time in his career.

“It’s those little moments where you get to give him a hug after accomplishing a big goal when a month ago we thought wasn’t possible,” Sioredas said.

From underdogs to the top dog, the campaign for Truax could not be more different than that of Lorenzo and Rotondo.

The three-time national qualifier was primed to claim his second individual Pac-12 title. His first title came in 2021 at 174 pounds.

Truax stormed out of the gate, winning nine of his first 10 bouts before suffering an LCL sprain against Michigan on Jan. 6. The injury sidelined the two-time All-American for over a month.

Returning to the mat on Feb. 17, Truax picked up where he left off, earning a pair of wins against ranked opponents to close out the regular season. 

Despite missing a majority of conference action, Truax was awarded the top seed at 197 pounds, therefore receiving an opening-round bye.

The route to a Pac-12 title would not be easy, however. In the second round, Truax paired up against four-time Pac-12 champion Kordell Norfleet from Arizona State. 

“If [Truax] wrestles to his potential, he can wrestle with anyone in the world,” Sioredas said. “He is really, really, really good at this wrestling thing.”

After a second-period escape, Truax shifted to defense, preventing Norfleet at all costs from scoring a takedown, ultimately winning 1-0 to advance to the title bout. With the semifinal win, Truax clinched his spot at the NCAAs for the fourth straight year.

Stanford’s Nick Stemmet stood in the way of Truax collecting another Pac-12 title. Scoring three takedowns, he outlasted the Cardinal wrestler 7-6 to become Cal Poly’s lone champion at the tournament.

“The guy is a total package,” Sioredas said. “We get front-row seats and get to cheer him on at this point.”

As a team, the Mustangs finished in third place, the highest team finish for the program in the conference finals since the 2009-10 season. 

With three Mustangs packing their bags for Tulsa, the rest of the lineup awaited the at-large selections to see if they made the cut. 

After recording seven falls this season and a second-place Pac-12 finish, redshirt freshman Trevor Tinker was given one of four at-large bids for heavyweights.

“Tinker likes to wrestle, the dude wrestles like a lightweight,” Sioredas said. “He’s a guy who has nothing to lose… he gets to go out there and let it fly, and who knows, he could get on a little roll and make some noise.”

In the witching hour, sixth-year Dom Demas was elevated from the first alternate to the 33rd seed following an injury dropout. The two-time All-American placed third at the Pac-12 Championships.

“[Demas] is very dangerous and you live by the sword and you die by the sword,” Sioredas said. “Nobody wants to wrestle Dom Demas, the dude is lightning in a bottle.”

Dom Demas (pictured) was named an NCAA Championship qualifier on Monday. Miles Berman | Mustang News

Truax was awarded the No. 2 overall seed, Lorenzo and Rotondo are 30th in their weight class and Tinker settled as the No. 31 seed to round out the carousel of Cal Poly wrestlers.

With half the lineup in the field, the Mustangs are primed to make a splash in the national spotlight at the NCAA Championships from Thursday, March 16 to Saturday, March 18 inside the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.