On Oct. 26, 2021, Wake Forest soccer defensemen Cristian Escribano (left) and Nico Benalcazar (right) sat down with Jake Stuart and Jack McKenney of the Weekly OGB Sports Podcast to talk about their journey to Winston-Salem and their time playing at Spry Stadium. Following the 2021 Fall season, Benalcazar signed a homegrown contract with New York City FC. Escribano is looking to return to the pitch in August after redshirting for the entirety of his sophomore season.
This interview has been transcribed and edited for clarity and AP style. Listen to the full episode here and don’t forget to subscribe to the Old Gold & In Your Ears channel found on all podcasting platforms.
Jake Stuart: Let’s get right into it. So, after a little bit of a tough start to the season, you’re coming off of the loss last season to North Carolina in the Final Four, this season you lost two of the first three games. You went 4-4 to start the year, but you bounce back and you won five straight games, including No. 5 Virginia Tech. You’ve outscored your opponents 19-2 during that stretch. What has changed?
Nico Benalcazar: I mean, I think the buy-in of the group. Definitely early on in the year, the group was super young, with not a lot of experience and a lot of newcomers. So we sort of needed to build a culture within the group. And I think after everyone met each other, and we started playing and creating relationships, I think that’s when the season really starts to turn around.
Cristian Escribano: Yeah, just to go off of that, I feel like the energy has been really good. The switch kind of flipped. At practices everyone’s present, and they’re giving 100%. Same thing on the fields. I feel like we’ve been connecting more as well.
Jack McKenney: In the last five games, you guys are 5-0, which is pretty hype. How do you use that momentum carrying it in towards the postseason ACC tournament?
CE: You gotta take it every game at a time. I can’t take things for granted, I guess. But you know, it’s been good for the team. As I said, the energy levels have been high, so it’s definitely helped us keep going. But I mean, every game is a new game. You have to reset.
NB: As a team, you always want to peak at the end of the season hoping to make a tournament run. And I think that probably the best thing that’s happened to our team in terms of creating relationships and stuff like that like we’re at an all-time high right now. So for us to keep building that up and like moving that throughout the ACC tournament and then hopefully the NCAA tournament. I think hopefully we can make a good run.
JM: I mean, this is the best time to be at an all-time high for sure. I know that the recruiting process for soccer, in general, is crazy. We had kids at my high school who didn’t play for the high school team, instead, they played for their club team. It’s kind of a circus. How did you guys get recruited? Tell us a little about the high school you went to and your club team?
NB: I live in Connecticut, and I went to Wilton High School. The soccer team there isn’t the best. But the thing with the academy is that if you play for an academy team, you can’t play for your high school. That’s a rule. So that’s how I got recruited. I was lucky enough to play on a pretty decent team. A lot of college coaches were scouting at different tournament showcases and that’s when they, for the most part, go out and watch you. We had a lot of international players on our team, so they watch them through videos and stuff. But we were lucky enough to be in the States, and they would go to our tournaments and games and watch us in person. And then after my junior year, I think after Aug. 1, I think their rule has probably changed now, there allowed to talk to you. So then after that, you have tons of college coaches you’re emailing. They’re asking them to call you, someone calling you first, stuff like that. Wake Forest was actually the first school I talked to. Then I didn’t talk to him for a little bit but I guess that got rekindled.
CE: My situation was basically the same. I live in like Frisco, Texas. It was like five minutes away from the FC Dallas stadium, so I’ve been playing with them, like my whole life. And then I think it was around seventh grade, that I transitioned into the academy and made soccer my main sport. I wasn’t allowed to play for school and all that. But yeah, I think colleges are allowed to reach out to you on Sept. 1, junior year, or something like that. Once that day comes rolling around, you just kind of get hyped, making sure like you’re playing and getting everything at all the showcases and qualifying tournaments that you go to.
JS: Why did you guys decide to choose Wake? You guys both had a lot of options. I know one of you guys had Duke right on the board as well. Was that you Cristian?
JS: Why did you guys choose Wake?
CE: For me personally, the visits were really important and kind of a huge deciding factor. Whenever I came to Wake, just being around the guys and the coaching staff, seeing the facilities and just the campus in general, I just felt like it was a good place to be. It felt like it was a good place to call home. Obviously, it’s super competitive here, and that’s kind of what you’re looking for to get to the next level. High-level players and competitive spirit.
NB: Yeah, I’d say the same based on the competitive side, I wanted to play in the ACC just because it’s the best soccer conference. My top two were Wake and UNC. And UNC has like 50,000 students. So you would just be another one of the 50,000. At Wake you sort of see everyone around all the time. You see similar faces. And growing up I went to a small school. My high school had like 1,100 people. There weren’t that many people in the entire town. So I think just having that feeling of a close campus and being able to see everyone all the time, that family feeling. It’s what really brought me to Wake.
JS: You talked about the family feeling. I know this is a younger group this year, a couple of guys have been [inaudible]. How is that? What was the process of getting everybody closer together? Did you guys have a lot of meetings, a lot of bonding time? What was it for you guys?
NB: I think what really brought us together was losing those games. Obviously, as a team, you don’t want to lose. But in those losses, you learn so much about each other and about the group and how much you can improve on what sort of happened. Because most of our losses came to the average teams. They weren’t ranked nationally or anything. So I think we all took a step back and said, what can we do to help the team as a whole? It wasn’t super selfish or anything like I’m doing all this while he’s not. This why we’re losing. Everyone took a step back. And that’s why I think as a new group that creates a culture for the future. I think it’s only going to be improving every year with the younger guys coming up.
CE: I was just going to say, obviously, every year is a new team. We lose players, we get new players. But I think honestly — I’m not sure how it was before COVID — but during COVID our whole entire class was living together. You were constantly around the other guys, the whole entire group. So I think that was like a good way to bond and connect and kind of like build those relationships.
JS: Take us through a week in the life of Nico and Cristian. What goes on aside from you know, tell us everything.
JM: Gamedays included.
NB: Okay, shoot. Want us to go on our own?
CE: I mean, we got practice.
NB: Okay. So Monday morning, we practice at 8 a.m. and then I had class at 11. After every practice, you’re supposed to ice bath, and that takes another 30 minutes or so. So we practice an hour and a half, done at 9:30, ice bath until 10, and then class at 11 and 12. Then I had lunch. Then we had a pregame meal or pregame meeting at 5. Then I had a lab from 6:30 until 9:30. That was my Monday.
CE: Same here. Practice, rehab and then class from 11 to 3:15. Meeting after and then just go back.
JS: Does it change a lot for a road trip? Do you have to get out of a lot of classes? What kind of goes into that?
NB: Yeah, so tomorrow, Friday, we have practice in the morning, we have an ice bath, then we leave for the airport at 10:30. So we’re gonna miss classes tomorrow, obviously have to talk to our teachers beforehand. They’re all super cool with it obviously.
CE: And plus, the academic counselors and advisors help us all. They talk to the teachers, they give us a travel letter. So we hand it to them ahead of time with all the dates and everything.
NB: So we leave for the airport at 10. Then we get there around 2 because we drive to Charlotte and that’s like an hour. Then we get to the other airport. We have a pregame team meal and a team meeting. And we just chill for the hour we have left in the day before you go to sleep.
CE: Yeah, I mean, this week’s been kind of rough because midterms, going up stress, and I’m crushing it in the B-School, in the library.
NB: They always say it’s like two full-time jobs. Honestly, it does get hard at some points, especially when you’re probably behind in one class. You have to stay up a tiny bit, and then you won’t sleep, and then you want to take a nap. It’s a whole mess. It definitely is hard, but if you managed your time pretty well.
CE: It’s definitely doable.
NB: Yeah, it’s definitely doable if you manage your time.
JS: How about playing for Bobby [Muuss], what is that like? How is he as a coach?
CE: I mean, he’s definitely hard on us. But I mean that’s kind of what you expect out of a coach. He’s pushing us to do our best and he’s definitely a vocal coach. He’s always getting on us in practice. He pushes us to be better. I personally feel like I’ve improved here under him and around the other player. I’ve enjoyed it so far.
NB: I think his presence is definitely felt within the group, in terms of just having that coach as a leader aspect. As he said, he’s a vocal person and vocal coach. And I think having that is pretty important as a team because you don’t want a coach not to be involved in any way, right? And he gives structure to everything we do. I mean, sometimes like any coach, I guess it could get annoying. But at the same time, you respect it, and you’re thankful for it, because he’s doing it because he cares about all of us. As Cristian said, I’ve learned so much in my time here just because he has had to coach tons of different players before us. They’ve all gone on to do successful things. Everything they’re telling you is, for the most part pretty much right. Says that everything you can take from him just helps you.
JM: I was gonna say you know his legacy. And you know what he’s done, all these players that have come here and come out. I mean, it’s pretty cool. Successful guy.
JS: How about playing in front of fans? How much of a difference does it make this year as opposed to last year? You guys are both sophomores. So you guys can probably speak to it a little.
CE: [Nico] is a junior.
JS: Oh, sorry.
NB: I mean, you play so much better. You have so much more energy when you do play when there are fans. Like our Tuesday game this past Tuesday, when the stands aren’t packed, it feels a little weird. Just because you don’t have that same energy. During the COVID year, there were only like 50 people out to go watch. You don’t feel that same “this is going to be fun.” It’s more just “alright, I’m playing again.” That kind of stuff. But our game against Virginia Tech, it was packed. You just get hype and everyone’s super excited to play. I mean, playing in front of fans, the hill is rocking. Especially since I play defense. I’m all the way in the back near the hill, and there its going to be super cool.
CE: Yeah, they definitely motivate you. There’s a foul or the ball goes out, you know they’re always going to be yelling. They’re always on your side chirping the other players.