Column | Walti, Noel need to lead young stars to keep men’s soccer elite

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Senior midfielder Jackson Walti, a returning player on Pitt men’s soccer.

By Zack Gibney, Senior Staff Writer

There is a term in the sports world called a “heat check” — when a player has been playing well and they put their hot streak to the test. This so-called heat check unofficially determines whether they have staying power or if the prior attempts were a fluke.

In just under a week, the Pitt men’s soccer team will embark on a season-long heat check. 

While there is no doubt that coach Jay Vidovich has turned a previously hapless program into a legitimate powerhouse, last year’s “national contender” label and its sustainability will be put to the test. 

In order to build upon the program’s newfound momentum, the returning players who experienced the highs and lows of last season will need to return as refined versions of themselves. They’ll have the big-game experience to guide the newcomers, providing the leadership to get over the hump.

The 2020-21 season was an eventful one for Pitt. On one hand, the Panthers were making their first ever appearance in the College Cup — a milestone achievement for a program that was once a bottomfeeder less than a decade ago. Vidovich’s squad even reached the summit of the national rankings for the first time in program history, just four seasons after failing to tally a conference win.

But Pitt’s historic year ended with bitter disappointment after losing its semifinal matchup to Indiana. The Panthers had the majority of the scoring chances in the contest — they just couldn’t find the back of the net.

Just under three months later, the team had the chance to reflect on the rollercoaster ride that was, by all accounts, their best season in program history. While the 1-0 loss to Indiana was undoubtedly a gut-wrenching way to end an otherwise memorable campaign, the team has a lot to be proud of when looking back on a season of many firsts.

Senior midfielder Jackson Walti has spent a few years at Pitt now and will again be a leader heading into the fall season. A member of the first Panthers squad to win an ACC tournament game in 2018, Walti wore the captain’s armband throughout the 2020-21 season and played every minute of every game — one of only two Pitt players to do so.

While Walti has grown into his role as a seasoned veteran, others will have to step into larger roles than last year. This means seeing some of the younger players, such as redshirt sophomore Luke Mort, develop into future leaders of the upstart program.

Junior midfielder Valentin Noel will step up alongside Walti to lead the younger Panthers this season. After garnering ACC Player of the Year honors and leading the Panthers in scoring in his sophomore campaign, Noel will be called upon to take on a bigger leadership role.

While Pitt lost multiple fixtures of last year’s memorable campaign — such as now-Atlanta United defender Bryce Washington — Vidovich has laid the foundation for a strong culture built to cultivate leaders. While the Panthers certainly had their fair share of star power in the form of Noel and others, Pitt’s success was largely due to players knowing their role on the field, regardless of how many minutes they played or how many goals they scored.

The ability to adapt and have players move into new roles is a hallmark of perennial powerhouses in college sports. Individual talent only lasts as long as a player’s college career. But a solid team culture can become a breeding ground for success over a prolonged period of time. 

Vidovich and company seem as though they’re well on their way to making this a reality and hope this year will be a step towards making the program’s long-term goals. Pitt outperformed expectations last season and all signs point to them having staying power atop the collegiate soccer mountaintop.

But this season starts and ends with the leadership of those who endured the tumultuous 2020-21 season.  

Pitt will face Robert Morris and Maryland in two preseason exhibition games prior to getting the regular season underway at Ambrose Urbanic Field against Duquesne on Aug. 26.

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