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Pitt’s Jackson Walti Reflects on his journey from walk-on to program record holder for minutes played

Pitt graduate midfielder Jackson Walti has played some brilliant soccer over his five years in the program.

Walti has played consistently since 2018 through this season. He holds the program record for the most minutes played in a career for a Panther, currently sitting at 8,309 minutes. He led the team in minutes played the three previous seasons and led first-year players in 2018.  He’s earned a starting spot in every single game since the start of the 2019 season and he started 16 of his 19 games as a first-year. Walti has also appeared in every game and played a significant portion in those games since he joined the Panthers.

As for accolades, Walti earned placement on the All-ACC Second team for the 2020-21 and 2021 seasons. He also earned a spot on the United Soccer Coaches South All-Region Second Team in 2021 and the Third Team in 2020.

If you told Walti coming into Pitt that he would’ve achieved so much in his collegiate career, he never would’ve believed you.

Walti’s story begins in Florida, where his mother gave birth to him. After birth, Walti’s mother brought him back to India where the family lived at the time and the family soon moved to Japan. Throughout the early years of his life, he moved around the world, due to his father’s work with Nestlé.

Walti started playing soccer at five years old. Everyday after school, he would walk home past the park with his parents and saw kids playing soccer. His parents wanted him to play, but he chose not to start until he turned five. Once he did, he began to play and fell in love with the sport.

His father’s job brought the family to Brazil and then to Switzerland, his home country, when Walti was around seven and-a-half, eight years old. The family lived in the town of Vevey, where Walti would call home for the next decade. Walti loved moving around as a child, but especially loved his small hometown, which still means a great deal to him this day. The town sits close to the French border, meaning that Walti speaks fluent French and English.

Walti continued to play soccer throughout his time in Switzerland, but around 14, he needed to make a big decision. He knew he wanted to keep playing, but also knew that he didn’t have the qualities yet, to make the youth academy for the local professional team, FC Lausanne Sport. He also didn’t just want to go to school either, so he chose to take a big leap.

He decided to play soccer in the U.S., attending the esteemed Montverde Academy in Florida. At the boarding school, Walti described the program as a “tight knit family.” He made great friends on the team and developed into the player he is today there.

Despite the improvement across his time at Montverde Academy, Walti struggled to find interest from colleges. He took a visit to Ohio State, but after the school fired the entire coaching staff, that was no longer an option.

He made a visit to Pitt just two months before his high school graduation. Walti had friends at Pitt that went to Montverde Academy. This included forward Edward Kizza, who starred for Pitt, and current Pitt graduate midfielder Rodrigo Almeida, who they recruited to join the team the next season.

Also, his first high school coach, Alex Prostko, served as an assistant coach for Pitt for a few months. Prostko put a good word in for Walti, particularly about his character. So when the coaching staff at Pitt looked at other players on the team, they would also notice him as well.

His visit to Pitt quelled his anxieties. The Panthers needed roster spots filled and Walti received a preferred walk-on to join the team.

As a walk-on, Walti didn’t believe he’d get anymore than a few minutes here and there, but Panthers head coach Jay Vidovich thought otherwise.

Vidovich saw in Walti an academically motivated and competitive player that had played at a high level at Montverde. In a preseason game his first year, he witnessed Walti “work his rear end off” and make everyone on the pitch better. His tenacity and his fight continue to improve his playing ability each year and his strength on the ball.

“His drive, his competitiveness, his leadership abilities and his desire to win,” Vidovich said on what he likes about Walti’s game. “He brought in a different element for us and he made his teammates better and allowed us to compete and prove it. Since he’s been here, our program has come a long way. So much is due to his personality and what he wanted to do on the pitch.”

Since Walti started in 2018, the Panthers rose from the doldrums of the ACC to one of the best programs in the country.

This started out with their first ACC tournament win against Virginia on the road in 2018. Pitt then hosted their first ACC Tournament game the next season, their first NCAA Tournament game in over 54 years and won their first ever tournament game. They continued their great play in the 2020-21 season, making it all the way to the Final Four.

Walti started the entire way throughout those postseasons successes, playing in the central defensive midfield role. His job first started out with him just working hard and once he got the ball, he passed it to the guy next to him. Now his development over the years turned him into a multi-faceted player and leader of his squad.

“My role has grown and I’ve become more confident on the ball and my technical ability has gotten better, my knowledge for the game has gotten better,” Walti said. “Now they allow me to do more with my game. Find longer passes, drive. For the most part, I still am that same defensive player I started out as. The guy sitting right in front of the two centre backs and keeping the balance of the team. My soccer ability has really progressed over the past five years.”

As the holding midfielder, Walti works hard defensively and allows his attacking midfielders in Almeida, junior Filip Mirkovic and sophomore Michael Sullivan, the time and ability to create chances to score. Sullivan looks up to Walti as a leader and for someone to support him in his game on the pitch.

“I’ve said it before, but Jackson’s the best leader of any team that I’ve ever been a part of,” Sullivan said. “He doesn’t do all the things that show up in the stat sheet, but everything that goes unnoticed that you need from a No. 6, from a captain, he does lights out. Being able to look at him kind of as a role model and just having that support behind me to go, “Hey you need me to do this, x, y and z, I’ll do it no questions asked.” I think having a leader that can bring the best out of you and bring the best out of your teammates is crucial for a team’s success and Jackson’s done that very, very well.”

While he mainly focuses on improving his own game by watching film and putting extra hours on the practice field, Walti draws inspiration from former central defensive midfielder Claude Makélélé. Makélélé played for the French national team, as well as Real Madrid, London based club Chelsea and Paris Saint Germain.

Walti loves Makélélé’s game because while he didn’t possess great offensive ability, he did all the tough tasks, made difficult tackles, and became “the workhorse” of his team, which Walti prides himself in.

So much of Walti’s ability to star for this team comes from the trust Vidovich places in him. Walti said that the relationship between him and Vidovich continues to grow as he matures and grows into that strong leader on the pitch.

“He’s helped me tremendously,” Walti said. “Now I feel like, in my fifth season, he’ll ask for, maybe not so much advice, but he’ll ask for my opinion on things and I really feel like a valued member of the program and he’s done that for myself and many other players over the course of my time here.”

Throughout his time as a Panther, Walti remembers the great strides his seen the program take and that he played a big part in. He also remembers other important games that some people might have forgotten, with two games from his sophomore season in 2019 standing out to him.

The first was when Pitt defeated then No. 1 Virginia 2-0 on the road, which was their only loss of the entire season. The other included the comeback win on Alumni night the very next game, where Pitt fell behind 3-0 to Duke and won 4-3. Walti scored the tying goal in the victory to send the game to overtime.

Walti, in his five years with the team, has played with some great players. He mentioned Almeida’s ability on the wing and Mirkovic’s offensive capabilities playing to his strong suit. He also remembers former Pitt star defender and now Real Salt Lake player, Jasper Löeffelsend, as one of the most talented players in the program. Walti admires current right back, graduate midfielder Lucas Rosa, whose versatility allows him to play from the back or even up to if needed.

His relationship with Kizza is something that Walti takes great pride in. He credits Kizza for bringing him to Pitt and for playing some of the best attacking soccer in program history.

“He’s one of the guys who was recruited before me and he played a role in getting me to Pitt,” Walti said. “We had been best friends in high school and when the coach Jay asked, “Is it worth letting Jackson on to the team?” Kizza vouched for me. So I can’t thank him enough for that.”

Ambrose Urbanic Field is the home for Pitt soccer and a place that Walti plays some of his best soccer. At home, Walti currently has won 34 games, lost eight and drawn four in his career. This includes a stretch of three years from October 2019 to October 2022 that Pitt didn’t lose a game at home in the regular season.

Walti said that the turf field is an advantage for the Panthers, whose opponents generally play on grass fields. He also notices the change from his arrival to now in terms of how big the home crowds are and how that helps the team perform on the field.

“I loved every minute of it,” Walti said on playing at Ambrose Urbanic Field. “Just looking at photos over the past five years, you can really see the growth of the program. You know, five years ago we struggled to have a packed crowd and now I’m just thinking about Georgetown and people were wrapped around the stadium. I think they had to stop letting people in because it was so packed and that was something when I first came here that I never dreamed of so it’s been amazing.”

Outside of soccer, Walti loves exploring Pittsburgh. He spends a lot of his time in neighborhoods like Shadyside, the Strip District and Lawrenceville. He enjoys the mental break away from campus and basking in the distinctiveness of the different neighborhoods in the city.

He is also completing a Master’s in Sustainable Engineering in his final year of school. He also spends time supporting London based club Arsenal and hangs out with Rosa, Almeida, Sullivan and sophomore forward Luis Sahmkow, who live in the same building he does.

Walti plays his final regular season home match against Notre Dame Friday night, and the results will determine if Pitt plays at home in the ACC Tournament.

He said that the team is capable of winning both the ACC Championship and the NCAA Tournament this season. Pitt is unbeaten in their last five games and is building some momentum heading into postseason play.

As for Walti, he looks to keep playing at a high level to achieve those goals the rest of the season, but he doesn’t want to stop playing the sport he loves once he’s done as a Panther.

“The way I’ve developed, the way things have gone for the university, for our team, I don’t think I can give it up just yet,” Walti said. “I still love the sport and I couldn’t see myself not playing it. Give everything I have for these last couple of months playing for Pitt and then hopefully our success on the field allows me to play a little bit more in the future.”

 

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