Team Spotlight: Saxon and USC Alum Whitney Pitalo, The Brains Behind West Salem Girls Soccer

West Salem — New West Salem Head Coach Whitney Pitalo has quite the resume to go along with her local connection. Coach Pitalo started her playing days growing up through the system at South Salem High School, playing for youth club soccer in Salem. “I fell in love with soccer pretty young”, Pitalo told me, “all of my siblings played, it was just a huge hobby, escape, and fun time for me.” After years in the youth soccer growing up, Pitalo got the opportunity to play for South Salem when she reached her freshman year, fulfilling a childhood dream of hers. “All of my siblings and friends went to South Salem, so playing for the Saxons was something I was always excited about, playing high school soccer was big for me and my friends because South Salem was the six-peat conference champions.”

When Playing For Six-Peat Conference Champs Turned Into Going To USC

When she was a Saxon, Pitalo played for Oregon ODP and was eventually named to the Region IV Team, meaning that she had the opportunity to represent the West Coast in games against the rest of America and as Pitalo told me, “That’s when things really got serious. That’s where I met a lot of my future USC teammates and competed with the best in the country.” Coach Pitalo’s college dream was to be a Trojan, growing up watching Pete Carroll and Reggie Bush win national titles, and eventually seeing her beloved USC take home the 2007 NCAA Women’s Soccer National Championship. That, according to Pitalo, is when the dream came to go to USC became THE dream for her as an athlete, “I followed that campaign very closely, so after that USC really became the epidemy of my goals in college soccer and where I wanted to be.”

After realizing she had an opportunity to play for USC, Pitalo began e-mailing the Trojan coaching staff, giving them the heads up about each national tourney she would be competing at but it didn’t come that easily for the Saxon. When she had the opportunity to play for a youth U.S. national team at a pool camp, USC arrived at the camp but “they didn’t watch anyone, they were just talking to one another.” Pitalo then reached out again, telling the Trojans she would be at the Las Vegas Showcase, a big recruiting event and that’s when USC finally responded to her. When they did arrive, USC observed every one of her matches at the showcase, an extremely unusual practice according to Pitalo, who is now an assistant at Willamette University in addition to being the head coach at West Salem.

A Screen Shot From Coach Pitalo’s Recruiting Video While At South Salem

In the end, it came down to Pepperdine and USC for Pitalo, but as she puts it, “I just couldn’t say no to USC, I just had to go. I couldn’t live for the rest of my life wondering what it would be like to play at my dream school.” At USC, Pitalo fought for playing time and eventually found her place as a member of the USC defensive unit, rotating in off the bench for the Trojans. In her career for the Women of Troy, Pitalo picked up a lone career goal in a primary defensive role while at USC. The year after she graduated in 2015, USC won a national championship.

From The Women Of Troy, Back To Salem, And Her New Homes At Willamette And West Salem

After graduating from USC, Pitalo she returned to Salem to pursue her Master’s in Business Administration at Willamette University, that’s when she continued her passion for soccer, “One of the first things I did when I got there was call the head coach and ask him if he needed a graduate assistant, I just couldn’t be done with soccer but I never knew I would be a coach. I was always one of those players that said I’d never be a coach, I just do it for playing.” Pitalo dove into her experiences at Willamette, “The girls at Willamette are just an incredible group, they’re smart, hard working, talented, just like ideal athletes to work with.” She spent two years as a graduate assistant and is now an assistant at Willamette, and after priorities wouldn’t allow for her to take the head coach job at her alma mater South Salem, Pitalo had the opportunity to take over West Salem.

“I got a call about the West Salem job opening up and I didn’t think it would. I’m a pretty optimistic person, so I decided to take the job and its worked out really well with being an assistant at Willamette. This is the first time I’ve been the head of a program, and I absolutely love it, its working out really well.”

Whitney Pitalo During Her Days At USC
John McGillen/University of Southern California

Coach Pitalo immediately went to work after taking the position at West Salem, writing down her program values, philosophy, and expectations well beforehand, making sure she was fully prepared to take over the Lady Titans. Pitalo went in-depth with her program values and what they mean, “Our values are hard work, resiliency, and community. 80% of hard work is just showing up at practice and trying your hardest to get it done. I was always a player that had to grind to get my playing time at USC, and I just really had to work hard. I feel like its something that was instilled in me, and I feel its the key to being successful in life and being at peace.”

Coach Pitalo on resiliency, “Resiliency is a huge word for me and I feel its a huge word for everyone. Being able to come back in adversity, being able to handle challenges, and being able to handle negative emotions and turn them into positive ones is huge. If you don’t have resiliency and aren’t able to instill that in your athletes, what kind of a program are you?”

Coach Pitalo on community, “I run Capital FC Atletica in the summer, and community has been huge for us in the last year especially with the World Cup. We did a lot of volunteering with the schools, made appearances in gymnasiums with students with a bunch of fun activities, donate our time to old homes, and holding World Cup watching parties. What is showed us was how important community is with bonding people together. Here at West Salem, we manage between 45 and 50 girls, and everybody is at different levels, have different emotions, and come from different backgrounds. One of the things I told the girls was that just because your on varsity doesn’t mean you can’t check in on a JV or Freshman player at school and ask them about their day. If you see them sitting alone, invite them to sit at your table, if you see someone being bullied whether on the team or part of a another program, you are part of the community and you need to be there for them. I had a Word document with team expectations that we sent out to parents and that the girls signed, that way we were all on the same page about what I expected from their athletes.”

Forming And Prioritizing The Creation Of An All Female Coaching Staff

If you see as many teams as I do in a season, you eventually get to the point where you’ll begin to notice oddities or unusual things about teams that are unique or you just haven’t seen before. Although I never noticed before, I noticed at team training on Tuesday that the Lady Titans had an all-female coaching staff, an extreme rarity or even one of a kind in the high school sports. I asked about this to Coach Pitalo, who spoke enthusiastically about her creation of an all-female staff for her squad. “I think its only come up recently that athletes need to have female athletes to look to as role models, not just on television, and so for me as a coach I see how crazy this is. The idea that my players may not listen to me because I’m a female is just crazy and ludicrous.”

As an a grad assistant and assistant coach at Willamette, Pitalo discovered that female athletes were more responsive to her since it was female to female as she puts it, “When I was toying with the idea of taking the job at West Salem, I knew instantly that my staff would be all-female, and I thought to myself that this might be the first time in Salem-Keizer history. For me it was really exciting, and for the girls, it gives them a unique experience to be surrounded by strong female leaders.”

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