Three paths led to the same destination for three area NCAA Division III wrestlers.

Starting Friday, Rochester Institute of Technology’s Joe Cutugno and Stevens Institute of Technology’s Thomas Poklikuha and Zach Wilhelm will chase national titles. They will compete at the two-day national tournament at Cleveland Public Auditorium in Ohio.

Poklikuha and Wilhelm would have to go 4-0 to win national titles. Cutugno, who has a preliminary bout, would have to go 5-0.

Cutugno, a 184-pound junior, is a 2014 Atlantic City High School graduate. Poklikuha (165), a junior, graduated from Pinelands Regional in 2015. Wilhelm (157), a senior, is a 2014 graduate of Southern Regional.

“I’m pretty pumped,” said Cutugno, 22, of Ventnor. “This whole week, it’s all I’ve been thinking about.”

Poklikuha and Wilhelm, who are roommates at Stevens, won championships in their respective weight classes at the Mideast Regional in Ithaca, New York, on Feb. 25. Cutugno, competing at the same tournament, finished third.

‘It’s do or die’

For Wilhelm, this is his third trip to the national stage, following his seventh-place finish last year. He will face Gavin Nelson of Ohio Northern in the first round.

He has enjoyed the most dominant year of the trio, having compiled a 39-2 record and been named the Centennial Conference Wrestler of the Year. He took first at the Ithaca Invitational on Nov. 5, the New Standard Invitational on Dec. 2 and the Centennial Conference Tournament on Feb. 10. He was second at the Matman Invitational on Jan. 13.

“I think I’ve wrestled the best I’ve ever wrestled this entire season,” said Wilhelm, who turned 22 on Sunday.

He dominated at the Mideast Regional. In his final two bouts, he won an 18-3 technical fall and a 12-3 major decision.

“I’ve been telling myself through the qualifying tournament the last couple weeks it’s do or die,” Wilhelm said. “There is no next season and no reason to go in nervous, anxious or scared.

“I want to enjoy it but also be a national champion.”

Seeds don’t matter

Poklikuha’s run in the regional tournament was a little different.

The junior, who has battled injuries since last season, had a strong season as well — he’s 20-1.

But because he missed a portion of the season, he had a lower seed in the regional tournament. Those rankings didn’t matter, as he was able to pin No. 8 seed and nationally ranked Zach Zupan of Cortland in the semis and posted a 6-4 decision over No. 4 Nick Velez of Ithaca in the final.

“When you put your foot on the line, the rankings don’t matter or give you extra points,” said the 20-year-old resident of West Creek. “I went out there and knew they were capable, but I knew if I wrestled intently and aggressively and focused, it didn’t matter. I’m going to end up with my hand raised.”

Poklikuha, who took third in the New Jersey high school tournament as a senior in 2015, missed a chance at the national tournament last year when he tore his labrum during the final month of the season. He will face Colin Kowalski of Gettysburg at the national tournament.

“It feels right in the sense I’m doing everything right, and it’s a stepping stone to winning a national championship,” he said.

Fighting back

Cutugno (25-9) took the longest road at the regional tournament to make it to Cleveland, placing third.

He dropped his second-round bout, 6-4 to Zachary D’Apolito of Scranton, and had to wrestle back to advance. Only the top three in each weight class advance to Cleveland.

Cutugno then went on a run, earning a second-period pin, a 12-4 major decision and a 5-2 decision to get to the third-place bout. Standing in his way was D’Apolito, whom Cutugno defeated 7-4.

“It was tough,” Cutugno said of having to wrestle back, “especially for a two-day tournament. It was my sixth match of the weekend. We both were feeling pretty sore.”