Perseverance is paying off for junior defender Nolan Mac of the UC San Diego men's soccer team. A senior academically, he did not play as a freshman, saw action in just three games his redshirt freshman season, and then got into 10 games as a sophomore, starting eight. In 2016, Mac has started nine of the 10 games he's played at left back, and been a key figure in the 21st-ranked Tritons' 9-1-2 performance that includes eight shutouts. He has a fan in head coach Jon Pascale. "Nolan is a blue-collar defender who has committed his time to constant improvement," said Pascale. "He embodies what the program and the athletics department stand for; a player and a good student. A physiology and neuroscience major from nearby Laguna Hills, Mac talked recently about the key to UCSD's top-ranked defense, his coach, and what might lie ahead for him in the future.
Q: Given UCSD's wealth of talent on the back end, what's responsible for you being in the starting 11 this season?
MAC: It would have to be experience. This year, we have a large group of extremely talented players, and there is not much that separates those who start and those who do not. From top to bottom, the team is incredibly deep, which always makes it difficult for Jon (Pascale) and Hern (Ryan Hernandez) to pick a lineup. However, I would have to say that my experience in games over the last four years is what's gotten me into that starting 11. At this point, I've seen everything that the game can throw at me, and I know the right (and wrong) way to handle things. Having experienced guys like Cameron (McElfresh) and Justice (Duerksen) in the lineup, has really been an integral part of our success.
Q: How has your team's defensive core managed to play so well with what's been a constantly changing lineup?
MAC: In preseason, the coaches always put an emphasis on defending. Whether that was 1v1, 2v2, or full-field defending, Jon and Hern made sure that we could defend well both as a team and as individuals. I think much of our defensive core's success can be attributed to how well the team has been defending as a unit. A lot of our success is also due in large part to the freshmen that have come in and stepped up early on in the season.
Losing guys to injury is never good for the team morale or chemistry, but players like Kelvin (Uribe) and Matt (Merrill) have really slotted into these defensive positions comfortably. Not only did they pick up and execute our defensive tactics quickly, but they also play with a maturity and confidence that most fourth-year (players) in the conference do not have. I also have to give a lot of credit to both Kuba (Waligorski) and Jeff (Powers), who have both been having fantastic seasons.
Q: How much correlation is there between good communication and good defense on the soccer field?
MAC: Good communication is essential to maintaining a solid defensive unit. It's a misconception to think that defending is only tackling and clearing the ball. More often than not, defending is all about organization, and moving both yourself and your teammates into the right positions. That defensive organization is a product of effective communication, and much of our success can be attributed to players such as Riley (Harbour) or Kuba, who are constantly organizing the team's defensive shape in order to win the ball back.
Q: How would you describe your style of play?
MAC: It's definitely hard to say. It really depends on which team we are playing and what tactics they implement. Generally, I like to get forward in the attack by overlapping my outside winger and whipping in crosses, but I definitely have had to pick and choose the right times to get forward this season.
Defensively, I like to think of myself as a tenacious defender. What I love most is getting into tackles in 1v1 situations. To me, there is nothing more satisfying than a clean tackle that takes a ball off an opponent. I think I love getting into gritty tackles because when I was younger, I was a pretty small kid. When I was 12, I was at least five inches smaller than most of my teammates and opponents. The only way I knew how to get their attention was by winning the ball, and hitting them with a bit of force.
Q: What's the most difficult part of your sport that the average person wouldn't realize?
MAC: I would say the most difficult is the mental aspect. It's really easy to stay engaged when the ball is on your side, but it's even easier to check out mentally when the ball is somewhere else on the field. Staying mentally checked in for 90 minutes means always thinking about the next play, and where you need to be in order to anticipate what's coming next. As a defender especially, it's these mental lapses that often cost games, and it's crucial to always stay mentally focused.
Q: What would you rather do, score a goal or shut out your opponent?
MAC: As a defender, it's so much sweeter to shut out an opponent than scoring a goal. Shutting out an opponent means I've done my job successfully, and that the defensive unit has held tight. I'll leave the goal-scoring to more experienced hands. My teammates and I both know my shooting is lackluster at best, and it's better left to Sam (Palano), Malek (Bashti) and Uly (de la Cal).
Q: Your head coach, Jon Pascale, seems like a pretty serious guy in training and on the sideline. What would fans be surprised to know about him?
MAC: Beneath the tough exterior, Jon is just a big teddy bear. Fans would be surprised to know that Jon is a devoted, loving father of two daughters, both of whom he is immensely proud of. Jon is also a big fan of reality TV shows such as The Real Housewives of Orange County and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. But in all seriousness, Jon is a fun-loving guy and a devoted father who I am proud to call a coach and a friend.
Q: When you're not playing, how much soccer do you watch? Favorite team, least favorite team? Favorite player?
MAC: I watch a good bit of soccer whenever I'm not on the field myself. I'm an avid fan of Arsenal FC, which can be stressful more often than not. I absolutely love the way they play, moving the ball with fluidity and class. My favorite player currently on Arsenal is Laurent Koscielny. The man scores goals as a center back, all while being a defensive tank who tackles hard. By association, my least favorite team is Tottenham. You really don't want to ask me what I think of them.
Q: You've indicated an interest in pursuing a medical career after graduating with your UC San Diego degree in physiology and neuroscience. What area intrigues you, and how did you develop your interest?
MAC: Currently, I work at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, where I study memory formation as it pertains to certain areas of the hippocampus and medial temporal lobe. As well as memory formation, I'm intrigued by areas in neuroscience such as consciousness, which I view as almost the "final frontier" of physiological discovery. What intrigues me most about these areas is how little we know about memory formation and consciousness. "What is consciousness," and how it differs from person to person, are both questions that intrigue and excite me.
I hope to continue working in the lab in order to push for discoveries that ultimately answer these questions. I really developed my interest beginning my freshman year at UCSD. Arriving at UCSD as a freshman, I didn't know what direction I wanted to go in in terms of sciences. However, I've had a number of wonderful professors, such as Professor Darwin Berg, who inspired me and helped me forge my path toward neuroscience.
Q: Your team is off to a great start despite a spate of injuries. Did you expect this type of performance? What do you feel will be the key to keeping that success going, and what makes this team a threat to win the CCAA and/or make an impact in the postseason?
MAC: Of course. We have been putting in a tremendous amount of work all summer to get to where we are today. After the come-from-behind win against Azusa Pacific in overtime (in the season opener on Sept. 1), I knew that this team wasn't one to give up. This team is absolutely tenacious and we refuse to lose. This success has been a product of the culture that's been established at UCSD. I learned very early on in my career that our team's success was built on honesty and hard work. That honest, hardworking mentality bleeds through from our most experienced seniors to our newest freshmen. Our team culture and mentality is absolutely amazing and everyone on the team is not satisfied with a mediocre finish in the CCAA's or the NCAA tournament. This team wants to win, and it's a team I am proud to be a part of.
Previous Triton Q&A Features
Scott Acton (Men's Cross Country) October 6, 2016
Marie Paris (Women's Volleyball) September 16, 2016
Kiera Bocchino (Women's Soccer) September 2, 2016
Nick Alexander (Men's Water Polo) August 23, 2016
Karina Carstens (Women's Cross Country) August 8, 2016
Amanda Colla (Women's Volleyball) July 22, 2016
Palano Twins (Men's Soccer) July 13, 2016
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