Devon Lotito jogged through the inflatable tunnel and out to the mat, and the Cal Poly wrestler learned something new about himself.
The sophomore 133-pounder is back in the top 20, and the first Lotito heard of it was when the public address announcer at Mott Athletics Center introduced him prior to a 6-1 decision over North Dakota State’s Justin LaValle on Saturday afternoon.
Though there are big expecations for Lotito (14-7) after a breakout true freshman season last year, he said he hardly pays attention to the national polls.
“Nah, not really,” the Bethlehem, Pa., product said. “My dad does, but he doesn’t really tell me or anything. It just gives him something to talk about at work.”
Lotito’s victory was one of the few bright spots in a 35-6 dual loss to the Bison. Freshman 285-pounder Spencer Empey was the only other of the injury-depleted Mustangs to gain a victory, hanging on to beat John Gusewelle 9-7.
And as Cal Poly continues to struggle through injuries to the trio of Dominic Kastl, Maxamillian Schneider and Sean Dougherty — all top-25-caliber wrestlers when healthy — Lotito is turning his season around in the right direction.
Going 29-9 last season, taking a Pac-12 title, rising to as high as No. 15 and losing two close decisions at the NCAA Championships after coming viturally out of nowhere, Lotito entered this year in a much more elevated position than he did as a true freshman.
Battling knee injuries himself, Lotito responded by dropping his first two matches and did not move above .500 until making a run to third place in the Reno Tournament of Champions in December. Lotito has won 10 of his past 13 matches as the Pac-12 dual season begins in earnest next week.
“He started off really slow, and now he’s coming back in true form,” Mustangs head coach Brendan Buckley said. “I think he just put too much pressure on himself. Freshman year, you’re a freshman, you have nothing to lose, people don’t always expect everything, and sometimes the lack of that pressure just helps people be loose and wrestle carefree. Whereas this year, I think he came in, was probably thinking too much, putting too much pressure and now he’s snapped out of it. Every tournament, you can see he’s wrestling better.”
As a whole, Cal Poly might be wrestling better if not for the injury issues.
Kastl (8-2) was having a terrific comeback after missing all of last season with a back injury before his latest setback.
The junior 174-pounder, who won a Pac-12 title as a redshirt freshman two years ago, was 5-0, including an upset of then-No. 16 Bryce Hammond of Cal State Bakersfield in the season-opening conference dual. Kastl continued his solid start before injuring his ankle in a pinfall victory over Upper Iowa’s Colbey Vance in the first round at Reno.
Buckley said he expects Kastl, the older brother of redshirt freshman 149-pounder Blake Kastl (13-6), to be out another week or two. Schneider was also 8-2 and ranked in the top 20 before he hurt his hamstring in the Las Vegas Invitational in December. The 157-pounder could return before the end of the season as well. Dougherty (9-7) is expected back for a Jan.12 home dual against Boise State.
Buckley said the Mustangs expect to be competitive in every dual with its full lineup. Having overcome his own injury concerns, Lotito knows how hard it can be to get back to form, but he appears confident to have done it.
“Really just getting consistent practices in really helped,” Lotito said, “because when I was in and out it really messes with you. You can’t really get any consistent work done.
“I feel like I’m wrestling a lot better than I did at the beginning of the year, and I think I’m wrestling better now than I was last year. So, I’m finally to at least where I was, if not better.”