Mike Mastovich: 'Whole town is behind Max': Murin family, Central Cambria wrestling community ready to cheer on former Red Devil when Iowa, Penn State clash

Jan. 25—EBENSBURG — Bob Nikolishen spent a decade coaching wrestling at Central Cambria High School, and by his own admission is still somewhat of a fanatic regarding the sport.

Still, Nikolishen used an iconic basketball movie scene to describe the traffic he expects will travel from Ebensburg to State College on Friday.

"It's going to be a convoy. I'm thinking it's like a movie scene from 'Hoosiers,' " Nikolishen said, referring to the 1986 Gene Hackman film that showed a long line of vehicles following a school bus en route to a high school basketball game in the state of Indiana.

This time, the line of vehicles will traverse Route 22 and I-99 on the way to Bryce Jordan Center, where NCAA Division I top-ranked, defending national team champion Penn State University (10-0, 3-0 Big Ten) will wrestle second-ranked University of Iowa (12-0, 5-0) at 8:30 p.m.

The Hawkeyes lineup includes veteran 149-pounder Max Murin, a Central Cambria graduate and two-time PIAA champion.

'Great supporters'

"There are going to be guys who are great supporters of Max who never have seen a collegiate match, especially at this magnitude," Nikolishen said.

"You don't ever get to see the No. 1 and No. 2 teams wrestle. There will be 16,000 people there. To be able to sit in the stands and know that one of your own guys is on the mat, this is huge."

Nikolishen said he excitedly used Ticketmaster to reserve his seat earlier in the week. The dual meet is listed as "sold out" on the Bryce Jordan Center link on the Penn State website.

Murin is a redshirt senior who is in his sixth year at Iowa — a career that included a redshirt year in 2017-18 and an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 149-pounder is 13-3 this season, with losses coming against some of the top-ranked opponents in his weight class.

Murin is 66-26 at Iowa since the 2018-19 season.

His opponent at Penn State should be redshirt freshman and former Blair Academy standout Shayne Van Ness, who is ranked 13th by InterMat. Murin is ranked seventh.

'Ebensburg connection'

"We're really excited. We'll probably have about 100 people from Ebensburg and the surrounding areas going to State College," said Max's mother, Tricia Murin, the assistant superintendent of Central Cambria School District.

"Our community is fantastic," she said. "They have supported Max and they support all Central Cambria students, academically and athletically. When they found out Max was coming to wrestle at Penn State, that is the closest he's been geographically."

Tricia Murin knows about travel. She and Max's father, Mike Murin, are accustomed to driving nearly 12 hours to attend matches in Iowa City.

"We'd get up at 1 or 2 in the morning. We would drive 11 1/2 hours," Tricia Murin said.

"We'd go see his match and the next match, we'd get up and do it over again. We drove it for a very long time. We'll drive to Big Tens in Michigan.

"Anything less than 11 1/2 hours, 'It's no big deal,' " she said, laughing.

When reached by phone on Monday afternoon, Tricia was walking through the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport after returning from Iowa's 19-18 win over No. 5 Wisconsin on Sunday night.

"We always support Iowa," Tricia Murin said. "They have become like family. It's family away from home.

"We'll never get this time back," she said of the long trips to watch their son and the Hawkeyes. "It's a small amount of time that we have. We just really want to savor every single second that we have."

'Legit Division I guy'

Central Cambria High School Principal Chris Santini said the school district is beaming with pride and anticipation heading into the marquee wrestling match that will feature the hometown kid against the local team.

"The whole town is behind Max," Santini said. "He's the first legit Division I guy we've had for a while. It's coming to the end of his tenure. I think people are just trying to soak up all of those moments because they know it is coming to an end.

"When they had NCAAs in Pittsburgh a couple years ago, I think every one of us from our administration team was there for at least one of the sessions," Santini said.

"To me, that's just small-town USA."

Santini grew up in State College and said people in the region are accustomed to seeing-high level Division I competition there.

"Here at Central Cambria, it isn't something that happens every day or every year," Santini said. "The whole town is behind him. The whole school is behind him. The last couple years when he wrestled, we put the NCAA tournament matches he's in on the TV in the cafeteria.

"You look up on the screen on ESPN or the Big Ten Network, you see Central Cambria High School, Pa., Max Murin. That's special. Our kids are pumped."

John Strittmatter is an assistant principal at Central Cambria. At Pitt-Johnstown, he won both individual and team national championships with the NCAA Division II Mountain Cats. Brother Jody Strittmatter won two Division II crowns and wrestled his final two seasons at Iowa, earning All-American status twice.

"People are really excited to support and cheer on Max," John Strittmatter said.

"Max represents everything that is right about sports and wrestling in our area. He is a role model and an inspiration to all of these young kids who are growing up and dreaming these big dreams.

"He's really showing the youth how to go out there and chase your dreams through hard work."

Tricia Murin said her family will host parents of some of the Iowa wrestlers on Thursday night before the group travels to Penn State on Friday.

She said Larry and Cathy Lee, the parents of Iowa three-time NCAA champion 125-pounder Spencer Lee, of Murrysville/Franklin Regional High School, will be among the guests.

"You have to make it fun because it's very stressful," Tricia Murin said. "You want the best for them. They work so hard. You want to meet up with the parents to talk about family and life. It helps the stress."

A diehard Penn State fan, Santini has a plan on how to dress for the big match.

"As a Penn State guy, I wish he was wrestling for the blue and white," Santini said.

"My son and I will have our 'Mad Max' shirts on under our Penn State gear and wear those during the 149-pound bout."

Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.